May 16, 2007
Petroleum, Not Ethanol, Is The Real ’Alternative Fuel’

People a thousand years from now (if there are still people) will probably write (if they can still write) with some amazement about the blip in history that was the 20th century, and the spirit of which may now be fading.

Here’s a sentence I would love to be around to read:

“They actually called ethanol and biodiesel ‘alternative fuels.'”

As if it weren’t oil that was the alternative fuel that horned in and distorted the world – especially the farming world – for 150 years.

It doesn’t take a genius to know that the world has an annual “income” of so much energy from the sun, and there’s really only one other kind – nuclear energy. But we didn’t know about that when we discovered the other “new” kind of energy, called oil, which was really old sun energy stored in a savings account in the earth.

For 150 years, we’ve plundered it and fogged our minds so thoroughly we came to see it as “the” source of energy.

Some people believe fossil fuels came along at just the right time. In the second half of the 19th century, the human population was starting to explode and nitrogen was becoming a limiting element in growing crops. The Haber-Bosch process for making ammonia from natural gas, patented in 1908, allowed farmers to use more land for food crops and less for rotation crops to gather up nitrogen from legumes. Haber-Bosch now fixes more nitrogen than all the processes of nature.

Then oil began to fuel tractors, eliminating horses. Forty million acres of oats were no longer needed for horse feed.

But I would argue that, rather than benefit, agriculture has suffered incredibly as a result. Farmers were pushed out of the lucrative energy business by cheap fossil fuels. Consider the size of the energy market, just the oil part. Our country uses a fourth of the world’s oil, about 21 million barrels a day. Do some arithmetic and you’ll come to this number: 130 billion bushels of corn.

The energy contained in the oil we use in the United States in one year would take 130 billion bushels of corn to equal. A bumper corn crop is 12 billion bushels and it takes 80 million acres to grow it. In other words, it would take all the fertile acres in the United States devoted to energy production and we still couldn’t equal what we get from oil.

Imagine what the earth would have looked like today if agriculture had developed during the last 150 years to provide that energy, instead of the oil industry.

There were would be crops growing everywhere. Lawns would be small or non-existent. Carefully chosen trees would be growing where elm and mulberry and other weed trees now dot the fence lines. Gardening would be everybody’s hobby.

There’d be more farmers. The cheap food policy that drove them out of business would never have developed. We would not have substituted machines for labor in many applications. We’d be trying to expend as little energy as possible and choosing the best ways to expend it.

Even with the best efforts, agriculture couldn’t provide all the energy. We’d have had to have been more creative and more conservation-minded. We’d have wind machines and tide machines gathering energy. We’d use more nuclear energy and more hydroelectric. We’d have solar panels in rows in the deserts, along fencelines and on every rooftop. We’d have smaller cars, fewer trucks and more railroads, leaner people pedaling bicycles and fewer soccer moms hauling kids around. Imagine what it would be like if every person had to come up with the energy equivalent of 10 gallons of oil every day, mostly for his own transportation.

Imagine a world without urban sprawl, and a countryside populated by people who wanted to grow things other than grass and day lilies, where corn plots weren’t grown for deer food but for fuel for the corn furnace.

Not everybody is keen on my vision of a world groomed like a Garden of Eden. Some people think I over-manicure things, and I admit I wage war on box elder trees and love my pruning shears.

True environmentalists these days seem to want to preserve the wilderness and save the rain forests (even if they never go there or see them). I think we may be able to do better managing them and not merely cut them down to grow corn and soybeans, but I do believe in farming, farmland preservation and land management practices that treat land as scarce and valuable.

The reason we can “afford” to have wild places, to abandon good land and let it revert to hunting forties and off-road vehicle trails, is that we’re sucking oil instead of farming land.

Agriculture was shunted off to the side. While farmers benefited in many ways from public support for agricultural research and the extension of scientific knowledge to them (a model that is valuable but threatened), it was done in the spirit of “cheap food for everybody” instead of reliance on farmers for food and energy.

Food became so cheap and so abundant, people didn’t bother to think much about it.

That may be changing now. The price of food is rising, not only in the United States but worldwide, as the demand for energy has propelled oil prices to levels where it now pays to shift resources – land, sugar, corn and soybeans – into the fuel market. Corn prices have doubled in the last year, propelled by plants churning out ethanol.

Some question whether it’s good policy to put food and fuel into the same category and make them bid against each other. It doesn’t seem moral. But the fact is, both food and fuel are energy, and both need to come from the same pool of renewable sources. As oil supply dwindles, becomes more political and pollutes the atmosphere, agriculture is once again moving into a position of primacy, a position it was shoved out of by cheap oil.

The only real problem is, as usual, the lack of planning. We should have seen this coming years ago – maybe a century ago – and made better choices.

The coming adjustments will be painful, but less painful for farmers, who will be paid more for what they produce. As oil becomes more expensive, the country will still cry for a cheap food policy, but that era may well be over.

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