Apr 7, 2007
We’re Paying the Price of A Poor Energy Policy

With gasoline prices nearly double what they were a year ago, it’s clear we’re paying the price of our poor choices in the past 15 years. And we’ll pay more dearly, too, because high gas prices may be only the leading edge of a ripple that turns into higher prices for all fuel and all products built from or with petroleum.

Poor choices start with our personal decisions, like commuting too far and buying vehicles that are too big and houses that are too large, but they include our social choices as well.

In recent years, we have selected leaders who tend to believe the market will fix anything, and there is no need for intervention by the government to set policy or direction. There is no right way or wrong way, just the market way.

Our leaders don’t believe in science, either. Fears about atmospheric damage and global warming are just that, senseless fears.

¬Abundant and inexpensive energy is the foundation of everyone’s well being, and we can’t afford to have private entities cornering the resources, manipulating supplies and influencing government to endorse their own self-serving policies. There is a “public interest,” it is expressed by the poorest of us (not the richest) and government should represent it.

Here are some things that should be obvious “energy facts”:

•The atmosphere cannot absorb all the combustion products we dump into it. Even if we “clean up” emissions to remove noxious nitrogen products, global warming is real and is caused by odorless, tasteless carbon dioxide. We need to find ways to obtain energy that does not depend upon the oxidation of carbon-hydrogen bonds.

•There are not many such sources. But they include solar power, wind power, tide power, waterpower, geothermal power, gravitational and rotational power and nuclear power. The development of most of these depends more on public policy than on entrepreneurial initiative. The most important of these sources of non-hydrocarbon energy is nuclear, and government needs to take the lead in fostering its development.

•The most important form of energy is sunshine. The sun itself is nuclear-powered, but we capture sun energy either in hydrocarbon chemical bonds created through photosynthesis or through solar cells, wind power and waterpower.

•Photosynthesis carried out by plants is the overwhelming method by which sun energy is captured. The harvesters of this energy are farmers, fishermen, hunters, trappers and lumberjacks. Miners in the coal and oil industries extract stored energy, but don’t produce it. Fossil fuels are sun energy that has fallen out of the system that normally recycles carbon.

•The role of farming in energy capture should be promoted intelligently. Farming is the only managed production system designed to systematically capture sun energy and not merely exploit its accidental production.

•Fossil fuels are dangerous to the environment because they are formed from sun energy stored in eons past, when the earth’s atmosphere was different and hostile to animal life. Combusting those fuels threatens to recreate the hostile atmosphere of that past time. Farming, hunting, fishing and timber production recycle carbon dioxide within a system. Fossil fuel mining introduces carbon from sources outside that cycle.

•Farming is a poorer source of liquid fuels than it is of solid fuels. Fifteen pounds of corn burned directly in a furnace releases the energy of a gallon of propane. Converting it to liquid ethanol recovers only a third of that energy. Farmers looking to exploit non-food uses of their products can find higher-value uses than ethanol, which devotes a third of the energy to fermentation processes.

•Farmers need public policy to foster a shift in the creation of plastics and chemicals away from petroleum feed stocks and toward starch-based stocks, and to direct these products, after they are used, to places like power plants that can use them in place of some of the fossil fuel they now use.

•In the long term, fossil fuel supplies are finite, and we will stop using them either because they run out or they ruin our environment.

•We use so much fossil fuel energy, farmers can’t expect crops to replace it. It takes 17 bushels of corn to equal the energy in one barrel of oil, and we use 21 million barrels of oil a day. That means our entire 11 billion bushel corn crop could replace oil for only 31 days a year. That means we need to farm more!

All farmers, no matter what they grow, should claim their rightful position as producers of fuels with a future – whether high-quality people fuels like fruits and vegetables or providers of clean sun energy. It makes no sense to convert our farmland to homes for commuters with SUVs and the Arctic Wildlife Refuge to oil wells.

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