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Can biofuel solve our energy crisis?

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: May 29, 2008 1:14 a.m.
Updated: July 30, 2008 5:04 a.m.
With gas more than $4 per gallon, we are now all looking at ways to conserve or convert our energy use away from this expensive source.

Environmentalists and others have long been concerned about our dependence on oil. Remember the hoopla over the secret energy meetings held among White House higher-ups early in 2000? The rising gas prices were easily predictable, and everyone wanted our government to do something about it. The solution did not lie in secret meetings with energy czars connected to the oil industry.

So here we are in 2008 with $4-a-gallon gas, and the diesel fuel that moves our products at an even higher level. Prices for everything in our nation will now go up because the cost of getting it to us skyrocketed.

Everyone seemed to believe that oil, like water, was a never-ending source of energy. Never mind the rising CO2 levels that we are now so concerned about or the air pollution that has caused increased asthma rates in all our major cities. Cheap oil fueled unimaginable growth over the past 100 years.

But the gushers of old that sprayed into the air in Texas and other states in our nation are far in the past. Those vast oil fields have long been depleted, as have many in Europe and South America.

Last week, the news in the business world was that Mexican oil field production appears to have peaked and is now declining. So we must rely on the unstable Middle East for the vast majority of our oil imports.

Now we are finally turning to other sources. Many people have touted biofuel made from corn, soy, sugar beets or switch grass as the answer to our problems. Although ethanol may be a bridge to energy diversification, it cannot be the answer. Why? We just don't have enough arable land to grow the crops needed to produce it.

We used to sweeten many of our fruit drinks with corn syrup. Have you noticed the appearance of all the new "juicy" juices, those made without corn syrup? While I, for one, am perfectly happy with this change, it didn't occur because of my preferences. That corn syrup is now being used to make ethanol.

And what about rising meat prices? Could it be that feed corn is now going to produce ethanol instead of beef for the dinner table? Again, I don't think that a reduction in the consumption of beef will hurt me. I have been trying to eat less meat anyway, but Americans might want to think about the issue of food costs versus fuel production.

The real issue, however, is arable land. With some 625,000 square miles of farmland in the United States, it is estimated that 420,000 square miles would be needed to be planted with switch grass, the most efficient producer of ethanol, to replace our current oil consumption.

Some 1.4 million square miles of corn would be needed, more than twice the arable land available. Obviously, this is not going to work.

So what is the answer? A diversification of energy production seems to be the most likely solution: Solar in the West where the sun shines most of the year; wind in those mountain passes that act as funnels for air currents; hydro next to rivers; tide turbines in areas close to the sea (Ireland is experimenting with this source); methane production from farms. Last, but certainly not least, we are all going to have to use less.

None of these energy sources will fit easily into a gas tank. So without some sort of electric car - yes, the same one that our political processes so efficiently killed a few years ago - we really are up a creek without a paddle, as they say.

Until that cute little electric beauty comes along, courtesy of a change in government policy, we are just going to have to use less gas. Maybe this means taking the train to work a few days a week or carpooling with a friend at the office.

I rolled my bike out of the garage over the weekend and fixed the flat tires. I intend to start using it for local errands.

Being a "Pollyanna" type, I am always looking for the silver lining to any supposed misfortune. So maybe our air will be cleaner now that those high prices have forced us to drive less. Maybe I will become fast friends with my new carpool partner or talk to neighbors I never met on my train commute into work.

Maybe I will get in shape and finally lose those extra pounds I put on over the holidays by using my bike to get to the post office and grocery store. And a reduction in meat in my diet will be good for my heart, that is for sure.

So in the end, the changes we are facing may not be so bad, but life will definitely be different in the future. And ethanol will not be a solution that we can depend on to stave off the harder choices.

Lynne Plambeck is president of the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment and a Santa Clarita resident. Her column reflects her own views, not necessarily that of The Signal.


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