New Fuels Need New Paradigm

The inevitability of peak oil is no longer contested. Oil giant BP acknowledges an imminent production peak. Exxon notes that 1987 was the last year we found more oil than we burned. And when Chevron asks, “Will you join us?” in admitting the finite nature of oil and reducing our consumption (unabashed greenwashing aside), you know the issue has surpassed denial.

The question now is of degree. Is peak oil “a non-event if we have enough foresight and the economics work to ensure we get the alternatives ready,” as BP Executive Director Iain Conn describes it? Or, as Chevron’s campaign wonders, “Is this something you should be worried about?”

The answer thus far has been a resounding: “Hell no! This is America. We’ll eat our crops and burn them too.”

According to President Bush’s recent State of the Union address, we need not worry about peak oil because we are “on the verge of technological breakthroughs that will enable us to live our lives less dependent on oil. And these technologies will help us be better stewards of the environment, and they will help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change.”

Bush’s plan (“Twenty in Ten”) includes reducing US gas use by 20 percent in the next ten years by improving fuel economy standards and replacing gas with alternative fuels. Conspicuously absent from his strategy and indicative of the overriding problem with claiming alternative fuels as the solution is the need for fundamental changes in behavior. Biofuel does have great potential to be sustainable, but problems are likely to arise if Big Ag and Big Oil practices continue to dominate.

The size and speed of the proposed increase, to 35 billion gallons by 2017 (in 2005 the US produced less than billion gallons of ethanol and 75 million gallons of biodiesel), encourages large-scale, industrial production. Currently, about 85 percent of US ethanol is made from corn, which uses copious amounts of pesticides and fertilizers, depletes the soil, and needs extensive irrigation that contributes to erosion. Notorious Clean Air Act violator Archer Daniels Midland, which now controls 25 percent of ethanol production, daily demonstrates just how incompatible cleaner fuel and cleaner environmental practices can be. Listed as number 10 on the Political Economy Research Institute’s Toxic 100 and run by Patricia Woertz, former executive vice president of Chevron, there is little hope that ADM will stray far from business as usual.

Another plan, making cellulosic ethanol from grassland biomass, particularly switchgrass, does not have the same disadvantages as corn. Indigenous to the North and Central American prairie, switchgrass is a deep-rooted perennial grass that can improve soil. Considered a conservation crop, its roots increase soil depth, prevent erosion, and slow surface water, decreasing runoff. It needs very little fertilizer and could be utilized in rotation to build organic matter in areas degraded by agricultural use.

And for those worried about taking biomass from the earth and returning nothing to the soil, there is good news. According to David Bransby, switchgrass expert and professor of agronomy & soils at Auburn University, this concern arises from a misapprehension. Says Bransby, “None of the key nutrients that plants obtain from the soil are incorporated into ethanol, which contains only carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. In the processes used to produce ethanol from plant matter, these nutrients will be collected in the residual ash that will be applied back to the switchgrass fields. So all the nutrients are recycled, or if deficient, restored with standard fertilization procedures such as we apply to any of our other food and feed crops. Therefore, the system is completely sustainable.”

While it is heartening to know that switchgrass cultivation for ethanol can be done sustainably (though I would beg to differ that “standard fertilization” forms part of that equation), so too could the practices of our current ethanol production. For example, using Brazil as a model, David Blume, ethanol guru, ecologist, and permaculture instructor, describes how smaller ethanol facilities are centered around farms in which the stillage (the liquid byproduct containing the nutrients the plant has obtained from the soil) is piped back to the soil from which it came. “One of the things about alcohol fuel,” says Blume, “is that it does give us the opportunity to close the nutrient loop if we choose to.”

The problem is that so far in the US, we have chosen not to. As larger companies clamor to ratchet up their biofuel production and gain a big share of that proposed 35 billion gallons, the trend toward Big Ag’s bad judgment will likely worsen, a strange fate for a sustainable fuel that could be produced—and controlled—locally.

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