Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Good Ideas in Search of Leadership

Looking for ways to curb rising food prices--and decrease our dependence on foreign oil? Here are three no-brainer solutions. Too bad no one has the courage to actually implement them.

First, on the food front; we found this rather interesting assessment from the Associated Press, yes, the AP:

Some top international food scientists Tuesday recommended halting the use of food-based biofuels, such as ethanol, saying it would cut corn prices by 20 percent during a world food crisis.
But even as the scientists were calling for a moratorium, President Bush urged the opposite. He declared the United States should increase ethanol use because of national energy security and high gas prices.

The conflicting messages Tuesday highlighted the ongoing debate over food and fuel needs.

The three senior scientists with an international research consortium pushing a biofuel moratorium said nations need to rethink programs that divert food such as corn and soybeans into fuel, given the burgeoning worldwide food crisis. The group, CGIAR, is a global network that uses science to fight hunger. It is funded by dozens of countries and private foundations.

If leading nations stopped biofuel use this year, it would lead to a price decline in corn by about 20 percent and wheat by about 10 percent from 2009-10, said Joachim von Braun. He heads the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, the policy arm of CGIAR. The United States is the biggest biofuel producer.

He and the other scientists said work should be stepped up on the use of non-grain crops, such as switchgrass, for biofuel.

Another scientist, not associated with the group, agreed with their call for a halt on the use of grain for fuel.

On the energy front, Investor's Business Daily has a couple of timely--and vital--reads. "Amber Waves of Pain" details the ethanol folly. Despite years of Congressional mandates, ethanol remains a woefully inefficient fuel, unable to compete in the market without massive subsidies. Meanwhile, the world is facing food shortages because much of the U.S. corn crop is being devoted to ethanol production.

In fact, you know that biofuels have reached a crisis when members of Congress start talking about freezing the ethanol mandate. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas has introduced legislation to do just that, emphasizing its impact on global food prices. Thanks to the ethanol craze, the price of wheat, corn and soybeans has risen 240% over the past two years.

You'd think that a Republican President would welcome Hutchinson's bill. You'd also be wrong. President Bush remains solidly behind the ethanol mandate, despite the economic repercussions. Of course, Mr. Bush and his foreign policy team also believe that North Korea can be trusted, so with that type of world view, then subsidizing ethanol makes perfect sense.

And lest we forget, there is a better solution for our energy woes, noted in Robert Samuelson's latest column. It's called drilling for oil, in ANWAR and off our coastline. As he observes:

It may surprise Americans to discover that the United States is the third-largest oil producer, behind Saudi Arabia and Russia. We could be producing more, but Congress has put large areas of potential supply off-limits. These include the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and parts of Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico.

By government estimates, these areas may contain 25-30 billion barrels of oil (against about 30 billion of proven U.S. reserves today) and 80 trillion cubic feet or more of natural gas (compared with about 200 tcf of proven reserves).

What keeps these areas closed are exaggerated environmental fears, strong prejudice against oil companies and sheer stupidity. Americans favor both "energy independence" and cheap fuel. They deplore imports — who wants to pay foreigners? — but oppose more production in the United States. Got it?

El Rushbo often observes that ignorance is our most costly commodity. We would submit that political cowardice runs a close second. And it's glaringly on display in our so-called energy policies.


Unknown said...

I approve of new drilling whole-heartedly. Also, I would recommend you read some of Robert Zubrin's energy policy for some intelligent commentary on biofuels. While he wanders into left field a few times, his arguments are fairly persuasive.

But I would like to see a minimal holds barred policy where we focused resources on the big items (solar, hydrogen, nuclear, coal gassification, wind, LNG, and oil from any viable source). Minor initiatives involving geothermal, wave, etc are ok. And we need to make sure that meeting peak needs is not dependent on a sunny or windy day, so we need stable sources of energy.

JD said...

Congress, first ones up against the wall when the revolution comes. Ex-congressmen too.

Mr. Quarter said...

You are way off base in the analysis. Diversion of starch grains to ethanol production is not the cause of food price increases and food shortages. It is energy. The cost of a barrel of oil. See my blog here in blogspot for more details - it is a topic I have written on recently.
Mr. Quarter

SwampWoman said...

I have to agree with Mr. Quarter. The price of production has risen due to increased fuel costs and, in fact, I can see rising costs daily at the feed store.

Increased corn prices mostly affect the cost of livestock feed and, by extension, meat. The livestock producers have not seen increased prices for meat but are seeing feed costs double.

jd watson said...

I second kyle's recommendation of Robert Zubrin's book "Energy Victory: Winning the War on Terror by Breaking Free of Oil." It is the most important book on energy policy I have read this year. You can get a taste of his proposals from this CSPAN video from last November:
His basic idea is that it should be mandated that all autos SOLD in the U.S. should be flexible-fueled, meaning they can burn any combination of alcohols and gasoline, creating an instant demand for alternative fuels, and then let the market and consumers decide what fuels they wish to use. This is a well developed technology (such cars are currently manufactured by Detroit and sold in California) and requires only minor modifications to current autos. Zubrin favors the use of methanol (methyl alcohol) rather than ethanol because it can be produced from a wide variety of things: marginal crops, crop waste, weeds, garbage, coal, natural gas, etc. OPEC would then be forced to set production and price levels in competition with alcohol fuels.