Sometimes Dave’s remarks border on mustacheism. I suspect it is more envy than malice, and I am not saying that just because I have a mustache. I finally got around to reading the article Dave posted about and have decided to use the Gristmill bully pulpit rather than bury my thoughts (that grew into a diatribe) in the comments, thus boring to tears a wider audience.
Sorry you can’t read said article without a paying for it. I don’t care much for newspapers. This piece was an example of why. If Friedman’s column were a blog, he would be learning a great deal right about now from comments.
(Writing letters to the New York Times is a waste of energy; don’t bother.)
Worst of all, his readers have been misled, unintentionally I am sure, but misled all the same. Tom needs to start reading Gristmill, and regularly.
He visited Brazil to get to the bottom of this ethanol business (as if a trip to South America would be the best way to do that) and listened to enthusiastic reports by everyone he met (who just happened to be making a profit off it).
I asked Brazilian experts what they’d do if they were the U.S. president. The consensus answer: Require U.S. oil companies to provide ethanol fuel pumps at all their gas stations, require U.S. auto companies to make all their new cars flex-fuel and improve mileage standards, and get rid of the crazy 54-cent tariff we’ve imposed on imported sugar ethanol (to protect our farmers). And then let the market work.
Jeeze! Like that response was unexpected. That part about improving mileage standards must have been said while trying to keep a straight face.
He states that Brazil could be the “Saudi Arabia of sugar,” suggesting that we should get rid of our 54 cent tariff on imported sugar ethanol. Never mind that this would scratch the biggest argument presently being used by our government, farmers, and car manufacturers for supporting and subsidizing ethanol — independence from foreign sources of fuel (the God-bless-America argument).
Sugarcane has already hit a limit. It is more profitable now to sell it for food. The more fuel makers pay for sugar, the more the fuel will cost (and food). This will soon happen here with soy and corn, and in this country, this will probably mean higher government subsidies (for both) in an endless circle of government meddling and market distortion.
He tells us that the government should force fuel distributors to provide ethanol fuel pumps at all their gas stations while simultaneously forcing car manufacturers to make all of their new cars flex-fuel. Only then does he finally suggest we sit back and “let the market work.” The Prius and the nano-phosphate battery didn’t need all of this government assistance, and neither should ethanol.
Case in point: We just took delivery of a Prius and will be getting $3,100 of our fellow citizens’ tax dollars handed to us in about three months. I want to personally thank each and every one of you along with our bumbling government for paying me to buy a car I would have bought anyway.
He talks about how, after the sugar is turned into ethanol, the waste is then burned to make electricity. Not a bad idea, but also not a new one. Burning cellulose is by far the most carbon neutral and efficient means of extracting energy from it (be it sugar cane, wood, or switchgrass). Burning it in a wood stove to provide direct heat is the most efficient way to do that. Burning it to produce electricity is the next most efficient way.
Turning it into a liquid fuel is the least efficient way to do that, regardless of the method used.
We can already grow switchgrass and wood here and stuff it into power plants in place of coal (it is being done in some places already). In fact, the antique steam-powered tractor I saw at the fair this summer did exactly what he is suggesting we do now, as if burning wood (cellulose) were somehow a new idea.
He tells us that after doing all of these things, the demand for ethanol would soar. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that the only thing that will make ethanol “soar” is for it to be the cheapest fuel. His edict that it would be the cheapest is the weakest link in his whole poorly thought out argument. Only government subsidies can guarantee that.
Building on this unsupported declaration that demand for ethanol would soar if we lifted the tariff and forced companies to provide pumps and flex fuel cars, he then makes another unsupported supposition, saying that this would push us faster down the innovation curve.
It might, it might not. It is much more likely to clear more rainforests (which are still cheap and plentiful) for more cropland. There is no guarantee that cellulosic ethanol will ever become economically viable (still waiting for fusion), and most importantly, if it does, we certainly won’t need sugarcane to make it. Many sources of cellulose we can grow here will do.
Dave has expressed this frustration before: a guy with access to a bully pulpit like the New York Times should be writing tighter stuff than this.
Get Grist in your inbox