Christopher Cook has a piece in the American Prospect identifying my central concern about the ethanol boom.

To wit, here are the sustainability advocates:

An array of ideas are afloat to encourage a more sustainable biofuels expansion: a diversified renewable energy policy that, rather than expanding corn crops, promotes more wind power and cellulosic energy from switchgrass and crop residues (which may favor localized, small-scale production); a federal version of Minnesota’s model, creating targeted incentives for farmer co-ops; and increased research spending by the USDA and Department of Energy to develop smaller-scale biofuels processing plants.

Sounds great, huh?

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Here’s the reality:

This corporate presence is nothing new, says John Crabtree … “People need to understand that ethanol production is already an incredibly concentrated market. Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill control the lion’s share of ethanol production.”

Ethanol leader ADM’s market share has actually declined from a stunningly high 60 percent to a still-worrisome 25 to 30 percent in recent years. But a recent analysis by USDA agricultural economists concluded, “The fuel ethanol industry may very well be in transition toward an inevitable concentration of ownership into the hands of a few large processing firms.” The market is driven by large-scale gasoline refining firms, which “don’t want to deal with all these small plants,” and a “virtual consolidation of ethanol processing” is taking place. …

New biorefinery developments are trending away from farmer ownership. In 1999, farmers owned all new plants being constructed, but by 2006 “they owned just 19% of the 1.7 billion gallons that will flow from 29 new plants going up or expanding,” according to Successful Farming magazine.

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Oh, well, hm. That sounds a little bit more like a big, concentrated, politically connected industry that enriches a few corporate executives and provides only crappy service jobs for the masses — you know, like all those other industries we know and love.

Here’s some more reality:

By edging out diversified farming, large-scale corn mono-cropping could weaken local food security, requiring more long-distance transport of foods (already averaging roughly 1,800 miles per item) — thus more diesel pollution from the trucks that haul foodstuffs. Meanwhile, EPA efforts to repair the Gulf of Mexico’s 10,000-square-mile hypoxic zone, a massive oxygen-killing algae bloom created in good part by runoff from fertilizers and pesticides applied to corn and other grain crops, may call for less corn — not more.

Hm. That sounds a lot like a huge, sprawling industrial process that pollutes the land and water and encourages petroleum use. Again, oddly familiar.

So when it comes to ethanol, you have the warnings of sustainability advocates going up against a consolidation and industrialization process that’s already underway and backed by a number of huge, powerful corporations.

Which do you think will win out in the end?

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