by Gilles d'Aymery
"Reason gives us knowledge; while faith only gives us belief, which is a part of knowledge, and is, therefore, inferior to it."
—Thomas Buckle (1821-1862), The History of Civilization in England
(Swans - March 12, 2007) Of all the US presidential hopefuls and not-so-hopefuls, only Representative Dennis Kucinich -- a less than not-so-hopeful candidate -- has clearly stated time and again what this Iraqi adventure is all about. A single word: Oil. He says it and repeats it with no "strings attached." Kucinich is his own man; a man of principles, religious and otherwise; a man of peace; a man of strong beliefs in the betterment of our human construct. What he repetitively fails to address is the American gluttonous addiction to petroleum products, and he remains silent on the much heralded clean and renewable energies that are nothing but a charade whose only purpose is to throw the wool over the eyes of the American people as mega-corporations, agribusiness, and investors through land speculation are swallowing immense profits, while there is literally no chance that ethanol can ever substitute gasoline to power motor vehicles. Kucinich could do a great service to his fellow citizens if he spoke frankly about the tremendous energy challenges that the country faces.
On January 8, 2007, Kucinich gave a powerful speech, almost an orison, to Jesse Jackson's Wall Street Project Conference, Sheraton New York & Towers. He showed once again that he has a clear understanding of the increasing fracture that exists between the very few and the large majority of Americans. He offered a Rooseveltian agenda, a sort of modern-day New Deal. However, all he had to say about energy issues is that he wanted "cleaner energy, greener energy." Nothing else. His speech, almost 2,200 words long, did not contain the words gasoline or petroleum products or oil consumption. The only reference to oil was when he explained how wealth was consistently redistributed upward. "Our electric utilities, our gas companies, our oil companies accelerate wealth to the top," he said -- and that's all he said.
As much as he is aware that the reason the US Military is in the Middle East and stuck in the Iraqi dry mud has much to do with the control of oil, access to the oil spigot, and profits, he only looks at the trees and ignores the forest, which is the gargantuan consumption of energy -- almost all coming from fossil fuels -- that we have come to depend upon to perpetuate our way of life with the catastrophic consequences on the climate of the earth (global warming). In turn, he advocates "cleaner" and "greener" energy, buzzwords that in all practicality mean ethanol and biofuels -- Dennis Kucinich represents an Ohioan district and is campaigning in Iowa, two states that are beneficiaries of the "clean" and "green" ethanol craze promoted by agribusiness, farming interests, and both political parties. Not once has he addressed the most fundamental question that, in the words of Michael Doliner, "if there is to be a peaceful solution it will have to be a conscious worldwide plan to power down." (See "Oil And War," Swans, February 12, 2007.)
In 1975, the U.S. imported 5,846 million barrels per day of net crude oil and petroleum products -- about 33 percent of its consumption. President Gerald Ford was challenging the country to become energy independent within ten years.
In 2005, the U.S. imported 12,549 million barrels per day of net crude oil and petroleum products -- about 60 percent of its consumption. Evidently, there is no politician, from Richard Nixon onward to our current aspirants to the highest magistrate in the land, who is not talking about energy independence.
According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), "International Energy Outlook 2006,"
World oil use grows from 80 million barrels per day in 2003 to 98 million barrels per day in 2015 and 118 million barrels per day in 2030 in the reference case.
To meet the projected increase in world oil demand in the reference case, total petroleum supply in 2030 will need to be 38 million barrels per day higher than the 2003 level of 80 million barrels per day.
Granted, these are projections only and they are being regularly revised by the EIA. Any substantial increase in oil prices or an economic contraction would have an immediate and direct effect on these numbers. However, they do not take into consideration the observable fact of oil depletion -- aka Peak Oil. The world is extracting more oil from Mother Earth than it discovers or recovers on a yearly basis.
It's also important to note that the United States is no longer an industrial country and has become by and large a service-providing economy, with the exception of the military-industrial-congressional complex and high tech. How well this economy is doing is a matter of interpretation. During World War II, the U.S. was producing about 50 percent of the world GDP. By 1950, it was down to 40 percent; by 1975, about 35 percent; today, just about 20 to 25 percent.
It is still an impressive number for a country whose population is less than 5 percent of the world population. But, this less than five percent of the world population consumes in excess of 25 percent of the world's energy, and releases 42% of global fossil fuel CO2 and 34% of greenhouse gas emissions. Each American releases 20 metric tons of CO2 every year in the atmosphere, compared to 8 tons for each European or 2 tons for the Chinese. Worse, Americans consume yearly over 12,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per person, more than twice the European consumption per capita, and twelve times as much as the Chinese.
Again, in 2005, Americans consumed 20,802,000 barrels/day of which the dependence on Net Petroleum Imports was just about 60 percent. Expressed in quadrillion BTU for the year 2004 the statistics are quite telling: petroleum: 39.8; natural gas: 23; coal: 22.5; nuclear: 8.2; and renewable energy: 6.1. Sixty-seven percent of petroleum used was in the transportation sector, which itself depends for 96 percent on petroleum (an additional 3 percent comes from natural gas, and renewable energy accounts for the remaining...a meager 1 percent).
Finally, to remain within the realm of the transportation sector: In 1960, the U.S. had a population of 180 million, 87 million drivers, and 74 million motor vehicles. In 1971, the last year in which there were fewer cars than drivers in the U.S., the figures were respectively (in millions) 207 people, 114 drivers, 113 cars. In 1975, at the time the U.S. imported about 33 percent of its petroleum needs, the figures became 215, 130, 133. The figures keep growing, and in 2004, they become 293, 199, 237...and close to 60 percent of the energy used to drive had to be imported.
How does that translate in US motor gasoline consumption? In 2000, the U.S. consumed 8,472 thousand barrels per day (annual average). In 2001, 8,610; in 2002, 8,848; in 2003, 8,935; in 2004, 9,105; and in 2005, 9,159. Now, 9,159,000 barrels of gasoline per day equals a staggering, mind boggling 384.7 million gallons/day (over 140 billion gallons a year)! Again, the share of US oil consumption for transportation is 69 percent.
Compare our consumption with that of our European friends: In "Gas prices too high? Try Europe" (Aug. 26, 2005), Peter Ford of the Christian Science Monitor reports that according to the International Energy Agency, "European per capita consumption of gas and diesel stood at 286 liters a year in 2001 compared to 1,624 in the U.S." That's 75.56 and 429.06 US gallons, respectively... (See "The Noble Cause," Swans, August 29, 2005.)
To hear repeated calls for energy independence when our energy dependence is growing year after year makes one wonder whether the public is truly aware of the dire situation and our political elites equally oblivious or simply disingenuous.
Instead of confronting the real energy challenge, from the president down to lawmakers and presidential hopefuls, the road to energy independence drives through the Midwest, the Corn Belt of the great American Plains: the production of corn-based ethanol in great quantities to substantially substitute gasoline in motor vehicles. It may be financially beneficial to farming interests, particularly mega-agriculture corporations (e.g., ADM, Cargill, etc.), and politically expedient for our vote-getters who want to reassure the American people that the predicament is under control. "Do not worry," the message goes, "the situation is demanding, but we are up to the task, and ethanol will become a large part of the solution to our addiction to oil. There is no need to change the American way of life."
The problem with this message and the investments and subsidies lavished on this industry is that they are both deceitful and delusional. Ethanol is a gimmick. It can't substitute fossil-fuel-based energy in ALL physical actualities. Its production will entail side effects leading to a much deeper, sorry hole. Again, it's wool thrown over the eyes of a population that wants to believe that our leaders have found the magic wand to keep us motoring on with joyous insouciance.
The question is not that ethanol is heavily subsidized by the federal government (our taxes) -- each gallon of ethanol receives a 52-cents subsidy. The oil industry is also heavily subsidized, and perhaps the biggest subsidy to our happy motoring goes to the United States Armed Forces, which obligingly send our sons and daughters into harm's way in order to secure control of the black gold all over the world.
Neither is the issue of ethanol being 25 percent less efficient than gasoline, making the real cost per gallon at the pump uncompetitive with its gasoline equivalent depending on the price of oil, relevant. To pay a higher price per gallon in order to become energy independent would be a small price to pay, if this was realistic.
More seriously, one has to ask whether the ratio between energy consumed to produce ethanol and energy created from its production is negative or positive. Furthermore, are the consequences of corn-based ethanol production positive or negative on the prices and availability of foodstuff? How much of the land should be dedicated to that production in order for ethanol to become a reasonable substitute to gasoline (and diesel)? Finally, what are the effects of increased corn farming on water resources? And who really benefits?
The jury remains out on the first question. Various studies come to different conclusions. David Pimentel (professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell University) and Tad W. Patzek (professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Berkeley), concluded in a July 2005 paper that ethanol does not provide a net energy gain -- that it takes a greater amount of fossil-fuel energy (oil, natural gas, electricity, for pesticides, fertilizers, farm machinery, wells pumping, plant operations, etc.) to produce that much-touted renewable energy. Other experts, often sponsored by industry interests like the Ethanol Promotion and Information Council, have contradicted their findings. Either way, the end result from an energy-creation perspective will be if not entirely negative, at best marginally positive, and this before even taking into account other consequences.
So the other questions become highly relevant. The impact on the price of foodstuff is already being felt downstream, as Mr. Bush has acknowledged all the while promoting the production of cellulosic ethanol (wood chips, switch grass, agricultural residue, etc.). Hog farmers and tortilla makers complain mightily that the price of corn per bushel has more than doubled with no end in sight as more corn production is being diverted toward the highly profitable ethanol industry. Corn-based ethanol production has an inflationary effect on the food supply to American households and, eventually, to the world (Mexicans have seen their food staple, the tortilla, almost double in price in recent years). The more we mine the land (it is another form of mining), the less food will be produced. So, not only are we subsidizing ethanol through our taxes, but we will subsidize it through higher food prices, too.
"Even more sobering," writes Lester R. Brown of the Earth Policy Institute, "in six of the last seven years world grain production has fallen short of use. As a result, world carryover stocks of grain have been drawn down to 57 days of consumption, the lowest level in 34 years. The last time they were this low wheat and rice prices doubled." In other words, we are replacing food with ethanol in order to drive our cars, or feed our cars.
In the last six years, the production of ethanol has tripled to 5 billion gallons per year. To reach this result, 20 percent of the US corn crop has been diverted from food production to ethanol production. If we were to dedicate our entire countrywide corn crop to the production of ethanol, what would we get (beside through-the-roof food prices)? Twenty, 25, 30 billion gallons a year at most. Keep in mind that ethanol is 25 per cent less efficient than gasoline, and compare the end result with our total consumption of gasoline (2005: over 140 billion gallons).
Just as a matter of perspective, a mere increase of CAFE standards by 4 mpg would offset the production of ethanol that would come from the entire dedication of the US Corn Belt to that production -- the entire Corn Belt! Reducing the speed limit to 55 mph countrywide would save one million barrels of gasoline a day, which translates to about 15.3 billion gallons of gasoline per year.
A few more detrimental outcomes: Since ethanol is such a bonanza, farmers have reverted to mono-cropping -- that is, not alternating corn and soybeans. That will lead to further topsoil depletion that will in turn require more expansive use of fertilizers. By expanding corn farming further West (e.g., Kansas), water irrigation will worsen the state of the aquifers. Moreover, no one seems to want to talk about what will happen with other side effects of this energy "substitution," namely the production of propane, heating oil, and asphalt as we are supposedly destined to refine less oil. These latter issues have not received the attention that they deserve.
The cellulosic ethanol produced from wood chips, switch grass, and agricultural residues is another full, cloudy cloth pulled over people's eyes. Mine them excessively and within a few short years they won't exist any longer. The topsoil will have disappeared and those mined acreages will become a desert.
Why are we following such myopic policies? Dennis Kucinich reminded his audience that wealth was continually accelerated, moved upward. Who profits? Corporations like Cargill, ADM, Louis Dreyfuss S.A.S. (the latter being French by the way, and for full disclosure, my estranged older brother, Patrick d'Aymery, is a little big shot in that private group, though not directly involved in that particular business, so far as I am aware), and plenty other corporations are racking in profits by the mega-bucks. Investors and speculators have jumped on the bandwagon. In a New York Times article by Norm Alster ("Has Real Estate Lost Its Sizzle? Not on the Farm"; March 4, 2007, Business Section, p. 4) one can read that "driven by ethanol, cornfields are fetching record prices." According to the Agriculture Department data, farmland has appreciated about 50 percent between 2002 and 2005. In the past six months prices have climbed another 20 percent in the US Corn Belt. Investment funds have seen their farmland investments appreciate by close to 30 percent a year for the past few years. "In Iowa [where Dennis Kucinich is campaigning], Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio [where Dennis Kucinich is an elected Representative], land prices have been rising," writes Norm Alster, adding, "Iowa farmland has appreciated for four consecutive years, to new records, with some land now fetching $6,000 or more an acre." The "chief reason?" Corn. The last harvest brought over $2 a bushel. "In less than six months since, it has nearly doubled in price."
So America's consumption of energy keeps growing unabated. Ethanol alternative is a pipe dream that generates a heck of a lot of money for a happy few. We have yet to address the issue of energy consumption head on. We do not know of any serious alternatives yet (beside nuclear energy). No politician is addressing these issues with a remote amount of seriousness.
Dennis Kucinich is an honorable man. He "believes" in his God-given destiny (like Mr. Bush, in some uncanny ways). He wants to speak the "truth." He prays. He wants us all to rise to the occasion. A better world is for us to take, he says. He is right.
Yet, he does not address what is possibly the most potent issue of our times -- how to power down. He has the unique opportunity to take this message out to the American people, but he remains deadly silent.
These are mattering questions. More serious questions are what can we, the people, do to stop this derailing train? And if Kucinich cannot get hold of the helm, who will?
Again: "Reason gives us knowledge; while faith only gives us belief, which is a part of knowledge, and is, therefore, inferior to it."
I wish Mr. Kucinich would heed these words.
In a forthcoming article, I shall offer a few mitigating conservation policies that Dennis Kucinich could espouse if he is up to the task. It won't be solving our dilemma, only mitigating it, and buying us some time. Hopefully, Mr. Kucinich will listen.
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