Children of the corn

Here we go:

As I've fallen further and further down the Peak Oil rabbit hole, and I've discussed it a bit with other people, one thing I've consistently come across is the Surely Ethanol Will Save Us All theory. This is the notion that when we run out of cheap oil (an event that even many energy industry experts agree is imminent, although Big Energy certainly isn't mainstreaming the news as yet), we will painlessly and seamlessly switch over to biomass fuels -- ethanol and butanol seem to be the front runners, there -- and carry on with the American Way Of Life unimpeded. After all, Dick Cheney himself declared "The American Way of Life is not negotiable", and we all know what happens to people who piss off Dick Cheney.

So far be it from me to quibble with a man who seems to enjoy hunting humans for sport. Nonetheless, a quick bit of trolling around the Internet today turned up these interesting factoids --

In 2005, us fat happy Americans consumed 320,500,000 gallons of gasoline per day. That works out to 116,982,500,000 gallons per year -- which is to say, one hundred sixteen billion, 982 million, 500 thousand gallons of gasoline per year.

Or, as the author of this site puts it -- "EVERY DAY, the US consumes enough oil to cover a football field with a column of oil 2500 feet tall. That's 121 million cubic feet. 55-60% of US consumption is imported at a cost of $50 billion+ per year, amounting to the largest single element of our trade deficit. In summer 2004, thanks to higher prices, increased demand, and lower production, record trade deficits of more than $50 billion per month were recorded, with approximately 30% of that attributable to imported energy costs. In September 2004, the US reported its lowest monthly oil production in 55 years, at an average of 4.85 million barrels per day."

Now, a few things about ethanol, or its somewhat better cousin, butanol, which we can actually run right into our currently existing gas powered vehicles without any kind of conversion, and which supposedly gives us even better gas mileage than either ethanol or gasoline --

According to this site, U.S. ethanol production has grown significantly in recent years. In 2005, 97 ethanol plants in 21 states produced a record 3.904 billion gallons of ethanol—an increase of more than 14 percent over 2004 and up an incredible 139 percent from 2000. (Source: Renewable Fuels Association)

Obviously, I'm just nosing around on the Internet and all this research has only taken maybe an hour, and I can't really do much fact checking in that time. However, given that the source of the above figure is a group promoting the viability of ethanol, it seems safe to assume that if their figures are in any way inaccurate, they would err towards exaggeration of ethanol production totals, rather than reduction.

So, straight up -- in 2005, we sucked down just under 117 billion gallons of gasoline. We managed to produce around 4 billion gallons of ethanol.

But we can do it! It's not emergency time yet; when it is, a million men will sprint to... er... corn shucks... overnight, and we'll ramp those figures right to fuck up! It's the AMERICAN WAY, Highlander!

Okay, here's another site with another figure: "...more than 9 billion bushels of corn produced by U.S. growers in 2002."

I don't know exactly what the hell 'more than 9 billion bushels of corn' translates to in actual objective figures, but let's be generous. The stat is four years old anyway. So let's say... oh... we have a national corn production capacity right now of 12 billion bushels of corn. Over here, I find out that

"Comparatively, in Ramey's process, a bushel of corn (maize) produces 2.5 US gallons (370 l/Mg), as opposed to 1.3 US gallons per bushel (190 l/Mg)in a traditional fermitive process. At 2.5 US gallons (up to 2.8 gal.) per bushel, Ramey's anaerobic fermentation process produces a volume of butanol comparable to the volume of ethanol produced from a bushel of corn in the traditional fermentative process."

All of which boils down to, you can generally get about two and a half gallons of ethanol out of a bushel of corn. The 'Ramsey' the article refers to is an experimental researcher; his process hasn't proved out yet. If it works, then we could get that much butanol -- the better biomass fuel, remember, ethanol provides about 2/3s the energy of gasoline -- out of a bushel of corn, too.

At 12 billion bushels of corn a year, that's 30 billion gallons of biofuel. Per year. That's slightly more than 25% of our national gasoline consumption.

Already, this equation sucks. Let's pile on:

First, we don't just use oil for gasoline. We use it as a base or a derivative in the synthesis of damn near everything -- medicines, plastic, lubricants, industrial fuels, and the heavy grade fertilizers we use to grow all that goddam corn. Now, I have no doubt we'll get really creative with our biomass derived products, and we'll most likely be able to get industrial fuels and lubricants back out of them, and maybe even some plastics (I understand they're doing some interesting stuff with soybeans there) but I'm not at all sure we'll be able to turn biomass into medicines... and while biomass by-products do make excellent animal feed and probably would make decent fertilizers, you can't get more out of a system than you put in.

Second, we can't just convert all the corn we grow into biofuel. I mean, we could, sure, but then, we have nothing to feed to our livestock, and there goes our entire meat industry -- poultry, cattle, swine, they all eat corn derived feed. Unless you're a zealous vegetarian or a serious seafood lover, you don't want to live in that future.

We'd also have to say good bye to a significant section of our snack food industry -- no more tortilla chips, no more corn chips or corn bread, no more canned corn or frozen corn or corn on the cob, no more corn meal... and I'd imagine that shortage would be felt in many, many other ways, as well, that I'm not knowledgeable enough to speculate on.

And, let's remember, even if my 12 billion bushels a year figure isn't a wild exaggeration, and assuming we do convert all that corn into fuel -- we're still about, oh, 72% down on our national fuel consumption -- in 2005, mind you. Fuel consumption rates in industrialized nations never decrease, they always increase. So in point of fact, right now, we are doubtless consuming even MORE fuel than that absurd, prohibitive, astronomical figure I already threw out.

We have a lot of fallow farmland here in America, it's true. We could, theoretically, start farming every square inch of it, and refining everything we grow into biofuel. I have no idea if that would realistically let us replace our oil consumption with biofuels, but, what the hell, let's light up a pipe and dream a special dream where it does.

Pragmatically speaking, the kind of large scale industrial farming we are talking about is entirely dependent on intense application of modern technologies -- which means, yes, oil. All our modern technology, pretty much, has been based on and driven by oil. Oil is almost literally a gift from the gods, a one time geological dividend. It's finite, it took millions if not billions of years to create, and over the past century and a half, we have used up about half of what exists within the planet -- the half that is easy, and thus, cost effective, to dig out. The half that is left is much less accessible, and much of it will almost certainly never be exploited, because it would cost more in energy to drill down to it and pump it out than we'd get back out of burning it. Large scale superfarms (the type that currently grow most of our biomass) burn prodigious amounts of fuel in their farm machinery, they consume oil and natural gas derived fertilizers by the kiloton, and much of our arable farmland is made that way by extensive irrigation projects, which are also products of a cheap energy age that is moving into its twilight.

Many informed speculators have stated with authority that the wars of the 21st Century would be fought over water. In point of fact, they will be fought over dwindling resources of many different kinds, but water is certainly among them... meaning that heavily industrialized irrigation products will also be a luxury few if any nations will be able to afford, as the cheap energy we take for granted continues to draw down.

All of which means, ramping up our farming industry in order to ramp up our biofuel production is not a practical option, either.

One thing I quickly picked up on, as I poked around the net this morning looking for source material, is that the Surely Ethanol Will Save Us All religion is indeed pernicious and ubiquitous. Website after website extol the virtues of ethanol and butanol, among other biofuels. Many of them sing hymns of praise to currently experimental processes that no sane being could ever possibly doubt will certainly revolutionize global society in the very near future.

What I find interesting about that is how everyone wants new technology that will revolutionize global society, so that we Americans and Europeans can continue to live our insanely, rapaciously gluttonous lifestyles without let or hindrance.

There's an inherent fallacy to this that no one seems to want to analyze... and that seems to equally apply to the numbers themselves. Everyone wants to believe biofuel is the answer; nobody anywhere seems to have actually done the arithemetic.

117 billion gallons of gasoline consumed per year.

30 billion gallons of ethnanol potential production -- if we all give up eating red meat and a lot of our favorite snack foods.

Now, you can make biofuel out of things other than corn, like, for example, sugar cane, and soybeans. So, maybe, if we start turning sugar and soy into biofuel, we can make up some of this shortcoming. But, again, these industries are as oil-dependent as any other modern agricultural system, and we currently use those products for other purposes. If we start diverting significant percentages of our corn, sugar, and soybean production into creating a replacement for the oil we rampantly consume, it's going to mean less of something else -- less cattle feed, less snack foods (especially if sugar supplies are also diminished), less plastic production (from soybeans). And it's occurring to me as I type this that much of our food is currently made out of fats and oils, and whether those come from livestock or biomass, we can also count on that supply dwindling as we ramp up biofuel production, too.

All of this directly, and hugely, impacts the American Way of Life that we are told (and that we all desperately want to believe) is non-negotiable.

What I suppose might work... I'm doubtful, but it's possible, I guess... would be a ramping up of biofuel production, with the necessary adjustments to our current consumer economy, coupled with a national conservation effort similar to what Americans willingly undertook back in World War II. When I say this would 'work', I am basically stating that such a concerted effort might allow us to maintain our current population base at something roughly approximating our current level of technology supported affluence and comfort. I'm not sure that's at all possible -- the loss of cheap, petroleum derived synthetics, in and of itself, will certainly be a body blow to our entire social structure -- but I suppose it's possible.

Considerable sacrifice would have to be made on an individual basis. Our individual fuel consumption would have to be cut sharply -- a national initiative on the part of our government to rejuvenate our aging rail system, and greatly extend it with new light rail add-ons, would be a huge help here, as would a willingness on the part of the American citizenry to actually use new mass transit systems, like rail and biofuel powered bus lines. We'd most likely also have to cut down on our meat and sugar consumption, to increase the amount of biomass for fuel.

The loss of cheap plastics could be catastrophic; at the very least, we'd have to willingly give up large segments of our entertainment industry -- CDs, DVDs, computer discs, computer games, maybe all kinds of Internet access... I have no idea. If we start using wood pulp as a biofuel base, there goes the publishing industry.

The problem with all this is that present day Americans simply are not willing to sacrifice, in any way, shape, or form. They... well, we... expect our comforts and entertainments to continue to be regularly supplied, in exchange for working a job and paying taxes... some of our taxes, anyway. Any American elected official who tries to tell the American public that we need to give something up is committing political suicide... which is one very large reason why nobody in power in our government is telling us any of this.

Ignoring an earthquake won't make it go away, however.

One thing we haven't even begun to address is the coming crisis with mass electricity production. Pragmatically, the best solution to that is a Federally led nuclear plant building project... but, again, any such attempt would be heavily fuel dependent; the longer we wait to get started, the more impossible it becomes.

Ultimately, the American Way of Life may not be negotiable... but the laws of nature don't negotiate, either. An adjustment is going to be made. Given how deeply we have our collective heads buried in the sand, I'm thinking it's going to be a bloody, brutal one.

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