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Articles by Ron Steenblik

Ron Steenblik is a policy analyst with 35 years experience working on trade, energy, agricultural, and fisheries policies. He has a particular interest in subsidies and their effects.

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Converting crop residues into cellulosic ethanol sounds to many people like a good idea — certainly better than using food crops themselves. Yet according to respected USDA soil scientist Ann Kennedy, the stems and leaves left over after crops are harvested may have more value if they are left on the ground, especially in areas receiving less than 25 inches of precipitation annually.

That includes most of the United States (click on link to see map) west of the 100th meridian, which runs roughly from Bismark, S.D. through Laredo, Texas.

To regular readers of Gristmill, this probably does not sound like news, but to others it may.

According to Kennedy (the full story can be found at ScienceDaily), a USDA Agricultural Research Service soil scientist and adjunct professor of crop and soil sciences at Washington State University:

“With cultivation, organic matter tends to decline in most places around the world. In the more than 100 years that we have been cultivating soils in the Palouse [the wheat-growing region of Eastern Washington, Northern Idaho and Northeast Oregon] we have lost about half of the original organic matter.

In term... Read more

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  • New surveys suggest changing views on biofuels

    Biofuel policy has made it to the polls. Yesterday, the National Center for Public Policy Research, a nonprofit, non-partisan educational foundation based in Washington, D.C., released the results of a survey (PDF) conducted at the beginning of this month which claims to have found that most Americans -- "including those in the Farm Belt" -- want Congress to reduce or eliminate the mandated use of corn ethanol.

    In response to the key question, "What do you think Congress should do now?" with respect to the Renewable Fuels Standard (which last December raised the minimum volume of biofuels used in the United States from 7.5 billion gallons a year in 2012 to 36 billion gallons a year by 2022, of which 15 billion gallons is expected to be supplied by "conventional biofuel" -- ethanol derived from corn starch -- by 2015), 42 percent of the participants in the survey thought that that the mandate should be eliminated to reduce ethanol production and use. Of the rest:

    • 25 percent wanted the mandate to be partly eliminated to reduce ethanol production and use;
    • 16 percent wanted it left unchanged;
    • Six percent wanted it partly expanded to increase ethanol production and use;
    • and 2 percent wanted it significantly expanded to increase ethanol production and use.

    Nine percent were undecided, didn't know what to answer, or refused to answer.

    Even among people living in the Farm Belt, 25 percent percent said they wanted the ethanol mandate repealed entirely, and another 30 percent wanted it scaled back.

  • Five nations agree to think about ending oil subsidies

    The day after markets registered the highest single-day rise in crude oil prices ever, the United States and Asia's four largest economies (Japan, China, India and South Korea), meeting in Aomori, Japan in advance of the G8 Energy Ministers summit, have formed a sort of Petro-holics non-Anonymous club, calling for an end to oil subsidies in their countries.

    Consumer subsidies (subsidized fuel prices), that is, not producer subsidies.

    OK, what they actually agreed upon was "the need" to remove fuel-price subsidies. Eventually.

    According to a report by Agence France-Presse, the five nations announced in a joint statement:

    "We recognize that, moving forward, phased and gradual withdrawal of price subsidies for conventional energies is desirable. Undistorted and market-based energy pricing" would help "enhance energy efficiency and increase investment in alternative sources of energy." They said that subsidies "should be replaced wherever possible by better targeted policies for intended beneficiaries. Such a move "could also lead to reduction in the government cost and greater integration of the domestic and global energy economies."

  • Once in place, the RFS will be nigh impossible to eliminate

    Several posts during the past week, and countless ones elsewhere, have asked people to support the Energy Bill making its way through Congress. Some people have no problem with one of its major provisions, which calls for substantially expanding the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) -- the regulation that requires minimum amounts of ethanol, biodiesel, or other biofuels to be incorporated into the volume of transport fuels used each year. Indeed, some would even welcome the prospect.

    Many others do not like the idea, but seem to feel that it is a price worth paying in order to preserve solar investment tax credits as well as production tax credits for large-scale renewable projects. (A national Renewable Electricity Standard has already been dropped from the bill.) Some of those people then argue, in effect, we can always go back and repeal the RFS next year.

    Next joke.

  • Guess which type of energy comes in last in a recent poll

    GlobeScan, a self-styled "global public opinion and stakeholder research" organization based in Toronto, has just published the results of a survey of 1,000 climate "decision-makers and influencers" from across 105 countries, conducted in the two weeks leading up to the Bali Climate Conference (Nov. 22-Dec. 5, 2007).

    According to the firm's website:

    Unlike public opinion polls, this survey focuses on the views of professionals in position to make or influence large decisions in their organizations and society. This focus, together with the survey's large global sample and good balance of respondents across all geographies and sectors, makes this survey unique.

    A bar chart showing the results in graphic form is found below the fold.