As comedian Jimmy Durante used to say “Wot a revoltin’ development dis is!”
The greens and lots of others call for more ethanol, more ethanol. They have pressured politicians to grant subsidies to companies that produce it. And to pay people to buy cars that run on ethanol.
Meanwhile, distillers are building ethanol plants. They offer top dollar to farmers to grow and deliver the corn to feed the ethanol plants. And farmers have dramatically increased their corn plantings.
Wunnerful, wunnerful? Nope. Revoltin’.
First, the prices for corn have shot upward. Forcing impoverished Mexicans to pay more for their most basic food. (Not to mention our foods.) Second, we are burning huge quantities of fuel to produce the corn. Huge. So our net gains are small. Third, other crop prices have also shot upward. Because farmers are growing less of those crops. Because they replaced them with corn plantings. Life is complicated, ain’t it?
Next, the farmers have to fertilize the corn. If you are so green you believe farmers can get huge yields without fertilizer, I have to ask you to trust me on this.
A lot of corn growers also have to dump thousands of gallons of water on every acre of corn they grow. And the intensive systems they use erode the soil.
The remains of much of this extra fertilizer ends up in the Gulf of Mexico. As farmers plant more corn, it will pour into the Chesapeake Bay. In these waters it will stimulate growth of algae. Which will sink to the bottom and suck up oxygen there. Which is creating - and will create more - dead zones in the water.
Seems like an opportunity for someone to develop algae farming or different fertilizers. But while we wait for that, I can hear Jimmy Durante chanting.
And here is a bitter ingredient in the revoltin’ mix: If every ear of corn we grow was used for fuel we would replace only 15 per cent of our nation’s gasoline. I suppose we would have to use a lot more energy to try to remedy the environmental damage. The damage caused by the corn for the ethanol.
Meanwhile, the soaring price of oil has made it more profitable to extract oil from the tar sands in Alberta. There may be as much as 2.5 trillion barrels of this oil. The world’s largest deposits of hydrocarbons.
Hundreds of billions of barrels of it we can extract for $18 to $23 a barrel. So when oil prices stay above $60, oil companies dig away in Alberta. OPEC go suck an egg? Wunnerful, wunnerful? Nope. Revoltin’. The greens tell us so.
To get at the sands, the oil companies are ravage the forests above them. They suck up so much water for their extractors they damage rivers.
All this reminds me of an article written years ago by a guy who learned how to dig wells for water in very dry parts of Africa. Wunnerful? For the nomads who had trekked from oasis to oasis with their herds of animals? For centuries? Nope. Revoltin’.
The nomads put on extra animals. Hey, they now had the water to do this. The animals destroyed the fragile vegetation. Nomads, staying longer in places, devastated the forests. For wood for their stoves. Without forest and vegetation, green areas returned to desert. The social structure of the nomads fell apart. Basically they grew fat and lazy - and decadent. In the end, everybody agreed the best course was to fill in the wells. Which they did.
To read more about this type of problem on a massive scale, Google Wayne T. Brough and Mwangi S. Kimenyi.)
The guy who wrote the article said the lesson he learned was that you cannot change just one thing. Everything is tied to everything else. In other words, be really really careful when you do things like switch farmers to growing corn for ethanol. Or when you subsidize a new fuel. Or when you turn to a new process to extract oil.
Recently greens have begun to admit, reluctantly, that more nuclear power plants should be in our future. Because they will cause less damage than wind and solar and switchgrass plantings that would cover half the country. Soon they may also fall out of love with corn and ethanol. They may decide, reluctantly, that we would be smarter to drill for more oil in Alaska, and off our shores.
From Tom ... as in Morgan.
For more columns and for Tom’s radio shows (and to write to Tom): tomasinmorgan.com.