The Real Scoop on Biofuels – by Brian Tokar

From:, Dec. 15, 2006
“Green Energy” Panacea or Just the Latest Hype?
By Brian Tokar*

You can hardly open up a major newspaper or national magazine these days without encountering the latest hype about biofuels, and how they’re going to save oil, reduce pollution and prevent climate change. Bill Gates, Sun Microsystems’ Vinod Khosla, and other major venture capitalists are investing millions in new biofuel production, whether in the form of ethanol, mainly derived from corn in the U.S. today; or biodiesel, mainly from soybeans and canola seed. It’s virtually a “modern day gold rush,” as described by the New York Times, paraphrasing the chief executive of Cargill, one of the main benefactors of increased subsidies to agribusiness and tax credits to refiners for the purpose of encouraging biofuel production.

The Times reported June 25, 2006 that some 40 new ethanol plants are currently under construction in the US, aiming toward a 30% increase in domestic production. Archer Daniels Midland, the company that first sold the idea of corn-derived ethanol as an auto fuel to Congress in the late 1970s, has doubled its stock price and profits over the last two years. ADM currently controls a quarter of U.S. ethanol fuel production, and recently hired a former Chevron executive as its CEO.

Several well-respected analysts have raised serious concerns about this rapid diversion of food crops toward the production of fuel for automobiles. WorldWatch Institute founder Lester Brown, long concerned about the sustainability of world food supplies, says that fuel producers are already competing with food processors in the world’s grain markets. “Cars, not people, will claim most of the increase in grain production this year,” reports Brown — a serious concern in a world where the grain required to make enough ethanol to fill an SUV tank is enough to feed a person for a whole year. Others have dismissed the ethanol gold rush as nothing more than the subsidized burning of food to run automobiles.

The biofuel rush is having a significant impact worldwide as well. Brazil, often touted as the most impressive biofuel success story, is using half its annual sugarcane crop to provide 40% of its auto fuel, while accelerating deforestation to grow more sugarcane and soybeans. Malaysian and Indonesian rainforests are being bulldozed for oil palm plantations — threatening endangered orangutans, rhinos, tigers and countless other species — in order to serve at the booming European market for biodiesel.

Are these reasonable tradeoffs for a troubled planet, or merely another corporate push for profits? Two recent studies aim to document the full consequences of the new biofuel economy and realistically assess its impact on fuel use, greenhouse gases and agricultural lands. One study, originating from the University of Minnesota, is moderately hopeful in the first two areas, but offers a strong caution about land use. The other, from Cornell University and UC Berkeley, concludes that every domestic biofuel source — those currently in use as well as those under development — produce less energy than is consumed in growing and processing the crops.

The Minnesota researchers attempted a full lifecycle analysis of the production of ethanol from corn and biodiesel from soy. They documented the energy costs of fuel production, pesticide use, transportation, and other key factors, and also accounted for the energy equivalent of soy and corn byproducts that remain for other uses after the fuel is extracted. Their paper, published in the July 25, 2006 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that ethanol production offers a modest net energy gain of 25% over oil, resulting in 12% less greenhouse gases than an equivalent amount of gasoline. The numbers for biodiesel are more promising, with a 93% net energy gain and a 41% reduction in greenhouse gases.

The researchers cautioned, however, that these figures do not account for the significant environmental damage from increased acreages of these crops, including the impacts of pesticides, nitrate runoff into water supplies, nor the increased demand on water, as “energy crops” like corn and soy begin to displace more drought-tolerant crops such as wheat in several Midwestern states.

The most serious impact is on land use. The Minnesota paper reports that in 2005, 14% of the U.S. corn harvest was used to produce some 3.9 billion gallons of ethanol, equivalent to 1.7% of current gasoline usage. About 1 1/2 percent of the soy harvest produced 68 million gallons of biodiesel, equivalent to less than one tenth of one percent of gas usage. This means that if all of the country’s corn harvest was used to make ethanol, it would displace 12% of our gas; all of our soybeans would displace about 6% of diesel use. But if the energy used in producing these biofuels is taken into account, the picture becomes worse still. It requires roughly eight units of gas to produce 10 units of ethanol, and five units of gas to produce 10 units of biodiesel; hence the net is only two units of ethanol or five units of biodiesel. Therefore the entire soy and corn crops combined would really only less than 3% of current gasoline and diesel use. This is where the serious strain on food supplies and prices originates.

The Cornell study is even more skeptical. Released in July 2005, it was the product of an ongoing collaboration between Cornell agriculturalist David Pimentel, environmental engineer Ted Patzek, and their colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley, and was published in the journal Natural Resources Research. This study found that, on balance, making ethanol from corn requires 29% more fossil fuel than the net energy produced and biodisel from soy results in a net energy loss of 27%. Other crops, touted as solutions to the apparent diseconomy of current methods, offer even worse results.

Switchgrass, for example, can grow on marginal land and presumably won’t compete with food production (you may recall George Bush’s mumbling about switchgrass in his 2006 State of the Union speech), but it requires 45% more energy to harvest and process than the energy value of the fuel that is produced. Wood biomass requires 57% more energy than it produces, and sunflowers require more than twice as much energy than is available in the fuel that is produced. “There is just no energy benefit to using plant biomass for liquid fuel,” said David Pimentel in a Cornell press statement this past July. “These strategies are not sustainable.”

The Cornell/Berkeley study has drawn the attention of numerous critics, some of whom suggest that Ted Patzek’s background in petroleum engineering disqualifies him from objectively assessing the energy balance of biofuels. Needless to say, in a field where both oil and agribusiness companies are vying for public subsidies, the technical arguments can become rather furious. An earlier analysis by the Chicago-area Argonne National Laboratory (once a Manhattan Project offshoot) produced data much closer to the Minnesota results, but a response by Patzek pointed out several potential flaws in that study’s shared assumptions with an earlier analysis by the USDA. In another recent article, Harvard environmental scientist Michael McElroy concurred with Pimentel and Patzek: “[U]nfortunately the promised benefits [of ethanol] prove upon analysis to be largely ephemeral.”

Even Brazilian sugarcane, touted as the world’s model for conversion from fossil fuels to sustainable “green energy,” has its downside. The energy yield appears beyond question: it is claimed that ethanol from sugarcane may produce as much as eight times as much energy as it takes to grow and process. But a recent World Wildlife Fund report for the International Energy Agency raises serious questions about this approach to future energy independence. It turns out that 80% of Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions come not from cars, but from deforestation – – the loss of embedded carbon dioxide when forests are cut down and burned. A hectare of land may save 13 tons of carbon dioxide if it is used to grow sugarcane, but the same hectare can absorb 20 tons of CO2 if it remains forested. If sugarcane and soy plantations continue to spur deforestation, both in the Amazon and in Brazil’s Atlantic coastal forests, any climate advantage is more than outweighed by the loss of the forest.

Genetic engineering, which has utterly failed to produce healthier or more sustainable food (and also failed to create a reliable source of biopharmaceuticals without threatening the safety of our food supply) is now being touted as the answer to sustainable biofuel production. Biofuels were all the buzz at the biotech industry’s most recent mega- convention in April 2006, and biotech companies are all competing to cash in on the biofuel bonanza. Syngenta (the world’s largest herbicide manufacturer and number three, after Monsanto and DuPont, in seeds) is developing a GE corn variety that contains one of the enzymes needed to convert corn starch into sugar before it can be fermented into ethanol. Companies are vying to increase total starch content, reduce lignin (necessary for the structural integrity of plants but a nuisance for chemical processors), and increase crop yields. Others are proposing huge plantations of fast- growing genetically engineered low-lignin trees to temporarily sequester carbon and ultimately be harvested for ethanol.

However, the utility of incorporating the amylase enzyme into crops is questionable (it’s also a potential allergen), gains in starch production are marginal, and the use of genetic engineering to increase crop yields has never proved reliable. Other more complex traits, such as drought and salt tolerance (to grow energy crops on land unsuited to food production), have been aggressively pursued by geneticists for more than twenty years with scarcely a glimmer of success. Genetically engineered trees, with their long life-cycle, as well as seeds and pollen capable of spreading hundreds of miles in the wild, are potentially a far greater environmental threat than engineered varieties of annual crops. Even Monsanto, always the most aggressive promoter of genetic engineering, has opted to rely on conventional plant breeding for its biofuel research, according to the New York Times (Sept. 8, 2006). Like “feeding the world” and biopharmaceutical production before it, genetic engineering for biofuels mainly benefits the biotech industry’s public relations image.

Biofuels may still prove advantageous in some local applications, such as farmers using crop wastes to fuel their farms, and running cars from waste oil that is otherwise thrown away by restaurants. But as a solution to long-term energy needs on a national or international scale, the costs appear to far outweigh the benefits. The solution lies in technologies and lifestyle changes that can significantly reduce energy use and consumption, something energy analysts like Amory Lovins have been advocating for some thirty years. From the 1970s through the ’90s, the U.S. economy significantly decreased its energy intensity, steadily lowering the amount of energy required to produce a typical dollar of GDP. Other industrial countries have gone far beyond the U.S. in this respect. But no one has figured out how to make a fortune on conservation and efficiency. The latest biofuel hype once again affirms that the needs of the planet, and of a genuinely sustainable society, are in fundamental conflict with the demands of wealth and profit.

* Brian Tokar directs the Biotechnology Project at Vermont’s Institute for Social Ecology (social-, and has edited two books on the science and politics of genetic engineering, Redesigning Life? (Zed Books, 2001) and Gene Traders (To-ward Freedom, 2004).

U.S. Green Building Council

Here is some general info on the USGBC, as well as what the Arizona Chapter/Southern Arizona Branch aims to do here in our state.

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) is the nation’s foremost coalition of leaders from every sector of the building industry working to promote buildings that are environmentally responsible, profitable and healthy places to live and work. Our more than 7,200 member organizations and our network of more than 80 regional chapters are united to advance our mission of transforming the building industry to sustainability.

Core Purpose

The U.S. Green Building Council’s core purpose is to transform the way buildings and communities are designed, built and operated, enabling an environmentally and socially responsible, healthy, and prosperous environment that improves the quality of life.

The diverse volunteer membership of the U.S. Green Building Council Arizona Chapter is dedicated to transforming the built environment in the Southwest. We do this by providing monthly chapter meetings that include a mixer and an educational program on a green building topic such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental DesignTM (LEEDTM).

We have standing committees on Education, Programs, Membership, Communications, and Finance that design and support our activities. Our financing derives from program fees, sponsorships and member organization dues.

If you are in the Southwest and are interested in green building, let us know! As an all-volunteer effort, we are also always interested in individuals and organizations that can lend a hand for financial support. Together, we’ll improve our Southwest built environment and our planet.

Our next meeting is January 17th at 11am – Making the Business Case: Understanding the Costs and Financial Benefits of Green Building. RSVP is required however, so inquiries should be directed to me at Thanks!


Making Other Arrangements by James Howard Kunstler

This article by James Howard Kunstler appeared in the Jan/Feb issue of Orion Magazine; On the web at

Making Other Arrangements
James Howard Kunstler

AS THE AMERICAN PUBLIC CONTINUES sleepwalking into a future of energy scarcity, climate change, and geopolitical turmoil, we have also continued dreaming. Our collective dream is one of those super-vivid ones people have just before awakening. It is a particularly American dream on a particularly American theme: how to keep all the cars running by some other means than gasoline. We’ll run them on ethanol! We’ll run them on biodiesel, on synthesized coal liquids, on hydrogen, on methane gas, on electricity, on used French-fry oil . . . !

The dream goes around in fevered circles as each gasoline replacement is examined and found to be inadequate. But the wish to keep the cars going is so powerful that round and round the dream goes. Ethanol! Biodiesel! Coal liquids . . .

And a harsh reality indeed awaits us as the full scope of the permanent energy crisis unfolds. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, world oil production peaked in December 2005 at just over 85 million barrels a day. Since then, it has trended absolutely flat at around 84 million. Yet world oil consumption rose consistently from 77 million barrels a day in 2001 to above 85 million so far this year. A clear picture emerges: demand now exceeds world supply. Or, put another way, oil production has not increased despite the ardent wish that it would by all involved, and despite the overwhelming incentive of prices having nearly quadrupled since 2001.

There is no question that we are in trouble with oil. The natural gas situation is comparably ominous, with some differences in the technical details—and by the way, I am referring here to methane gas (CH4), the stuff that fuels kitchen stoves and home furnaces, not cars and trucks. Natural gas doesn’t deplete slowly like oil, following a predictable bell-curve pattern; it simply stops coming out of the ground when a particular gas well is played out. You also tend to get your gas from the continent you are on. To import natural gas from overseas, it has to be liquefied, loaded in a special kind of expensive-to-build-and-operate tanker, and then offloaded at a specialized marine terminal.

Half the homes in America are heated with gas furnaces and about 16 percent of our electricity is made with it. Industry uses natural gas as the primary ingredient in fertilizer, plastics, ink, glue, paint, laundry detergent, insect repellent, and many other common household necessities. Synthetic rubber and man-made fibers like nylon could not be made without the chemicals derived from natural gas. In North America, natural gas production peaked in 1973. We are drilling as fast as we can to keep the air conditioners and furnaces running.

What’s more, the problems of climate change are amplifying, ramifying, and mutually reinforcing the problems associated with rapidly vanishing oil and gas reserves. This was illustrated vividly in 2005, when slightly higher ocean temperatures sent Hurricanes Katrina and Rita slamming into the U.S. Gulf Coast. Almost a year later, roughly 12 percent of oil production and 9.5 percent of natural gas production in the gulf was still out, probably for good. Many of these production platforms may never be rebuilt, because the amounts of oil and gas left beneath them would not justify the cost. If there is $50 million worth of oil down there, why spend $100 million replacing a wrecked platform to get it?

Climate change will also ramify the formidable problems associated with alternative fuels. As I write, the American grain belt is locked in a fierce summer drought. Corn and soybean crops are withering from Minnesota to Illinois; wheat is burning up in the Dakotas and Kansas. Meanwhile, the costs of agricultural “inputs”—from diesel fuel to fertilizers made from natural gas to oil-derived pesticides—have been ramping up steadily since 2003 to the great distress of farmers. Both weather and oil costs are driving our crop yields down, while the industrial mode of farming that has evolved since the Second World War becomes increasingly impractical. We are going to have trouble feeding ourselves in the years ahead, not to mention the many nations who depend for survival on American grain exports. So the idea that we can simply shift millions of acres from food crops to ethanol or biodiesel crops to make fuels for cars represents a staggering misunderstanding of reality.

Still, the widespread wish persists that some combination of alternative fuels will rescue us from this oil and gas predicament and allow us to continue enjoying by some other means what Vice-President Cheney has called the “non-negotiable” American way of life. The truth is that no combination of alternative fuels or systems for using them will allow us to continue running America, or even a substantial fraction of it, the way we have been. We are not going to run Wal-Mart, Walt Disney World, Monsanto, and the Interstate Highway System on any combination of solar or wind energy, hydrogen, ethanol, tar sands, oil shale, methane hydrates, nuclear power, thermal depolymerization, “zero-point” energy, or anything else you can name. We will desperately use many of these things in many ways, but we are likely to be disappointed in what they can actually do for us.

The key to understanding the challenge we face is admitting that we have to comprehensively make other arrangements for all the normal activities of everyday life. I will return to this theme shortly, but first it is important to try to account for the extraordinary amount of delusional thinking that currently dogs our collective ability to think about these problems.

The widespread wish to just uncouple from oil and gas and plug all our complex systems into other energy sources is an interesting and troubling enough phenomenon in its own right to merit some discussion. Perhaps the leading delusion is the notion that energy and technology are one and the same thing, interchangeable. The popular idea, expressed incessantly in the news media, is that if you run out of energy, you just go out and find some “new technology” to keep things running. We’ll learn that this doesn’t comport with reality. For example, commercial airplanes are either going to run on cheap liquid hydrocarbon fuels or we’re not going to have commercial aviation as we have known it. No other energy source is concentrated enough by weight, affordable enough by volume, and abundant enough in supply to do the necessary work to overcome gravity in a loaded airplane, repeated thousands of times each day by airlines around the world. No other way of delivering that energy source besides refined liquid hydrocarbons will allow that commercial system to operate at the scale we are accustomed to. The only reason this system exists is that until now such fuels have been cheap and abundant. We are not going to replace the existing worldwide fleet of airplanes either, and besides, there is no other type of airplane we have yet devised that can work differently.

There may be other ways of moving things above the ground, for instance balloons, blimps, or zeppelin-type airships. But they will move much more slowly and carry far less cargo and human passengers than the airplanes we’ve been enjoying for the past sixty years or so. The most likely scenario in the years ahead is that aviation will become an increasingly expensive, elite activity as the oil age dribbles to a close, and then it will not exist at all.

Another major mistake made by those who fail to pay attention is overlooking the unanticipated consequences of new technology, which more often than not add additional layers of problems to existing ones. In the energy sector, one of the most vivid examples is seen in the short history of the world’s last truly great oil discovery, the North Sea fields between Norway and the UK. They were found in the ’60s, got into production in the late ’70s, and were pumping at full blast in the early ’90s. Then, around 1999, they peaked and are now in extremely steep decline—up to 50 percent a year in the case of some UK fields. The fact that they were drilled with the latest and best new technology turns out to mean that they were drained with stunning efficiency. “New technology” only hastened Britain’s descent into energy poverty. Now, after a twenty-year-long North Sea bonanza in which it enjoyed an orgy of suburbanization, Great Britain is again a net energy importer. Soon the Brits will have no North Sea oil whatsoever and will find themselves below their energy diet of the grim 1950s.

If you really want to understand the U.S. public’s penchant for wishful thinking, consider this: We invested most of our late twentieth-century wealth in a living arrangement with no future. American suburbia represents the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. The far-flung housing subdivisions, commercial highway strips, big-box stores, and all the other furnishings and accessories of extreme car dependence will function poorly, if at all, in an oil-scarce future. Period. This dilemma now entails a powerful psychology of previous investment, which is prompting us to defend our misinvestments desperately, or, at least, preventing us from letting go of our assumptions about their future value. Compounding the disaster is the unfortunate fact that the manic construction of ever more futureless suburbs (a.k.a. the “housing bubble”) has insidiously replaced manufacturing as the basis of our economy.

Meanwhile, the outsourcing of manufacturing to other nations has spurred the development of a “global economy,” which media opinion-leaders such as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman (author of The World Is Flat) say is a permanent state of affairs that we had better get used to. It is probably more accurate to say that the global economy is a set of transient economic relations that have come about because of two fundamental (and transient) conditions: a half century of relative peace between great powers and a half century of cheap and abundant fossil-fuel energy. These two mutually dependent conditions are now liable to come to an end as the great powers enter a bitter contest over the world’s remaining energy resources, and the world is actually apt to become a lot larger and less flat as these economic relations unravel.

This is approximately the state of the nation right now. It is deeply and tragically ironic that the more information that bombards us, the less we seem to understand. There are cable TV news networks and Internet news sites beyond counting, yet we are unable to process this deluge of information into a coherent public discussion about the fundamental challenges that our civilization faces—not to mention a sensible agenda for meeting these hardships. Meanwhile, CBS News tells millions of viewers that the tar sands of Alberta will solve all our problems, or (two weeks later) that the coal beds under Montana and Wyoming will sustain business as usual, and CNN tells another several million viewers that we can run everything here on ethanol, just like they do in Brazil.

Of course, the single worst impediment to clear thinking among most individuals and organizations in America today is the obsession with keeping the cars running at all costs. Even the environmental community is guilty of this. The esteemed Rocky Mountain Institute ran a project for a decade to design and develop a “hyper-car” capable of getting supernaturally fabulous mileage, in the belief that this would be an ecological benefit. The short-sightedness of this venture? It only promoted the idea that we could continue to be a car-dependent society; the project barely gave nodding recognition to the value of walkable communities and public transit.

The most arrant case of collective cluelessness now on view is our failure to even begin a public discussion about fixing the U.S. passenger railroad system, which has become so decrepit that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of it. It’s the one thing we could do right away that would have a substantial impact on our oil use. The infrastructure is still out there, rusting in the rain, waiting to be fixed. The restoration of it would employ hundreds of thousands of Americans at all levels of meaningful work. The fact that we are hardly even talking about it—at any point along the political spectrum, left, right, or center—shows how fundamentally un-serious we are.

This is just not good enough. It is not worthy of our history, our heritage, or the sacrifices that our ancestors made. It is wholly incompatible with anything describable as our collective responsibility to the future.

We have to do better. We have to start right away making those other arrangements. We have to begin the transition to some mode of living that will allow us to carry on the project of civilization—and I would argue against the notion advanced by Daniel Quinn and others that civilization itself is our enemy and should not be continued. The agenda for facing our problems squarely can, in fact, be described with some precision. We have to make other arrangements for the basic activities of everyday life.

In general, the circumstances we face with energy and climate change will require us to live much more locally, probably profoundly and intensely so. We have to grow more of our food locally, on a smaller scale than we do now, with fewer artificial “inputs,” and probably with more human and animal labor. Farming may come closer to the center of our national economic life than it has been within the memory of anyone alive now. These changes are also likely to revive a menu of social and class conflicts that we also thought we had left behind.

We’ll have to reorganize retail trade by rebuilding networks of local economic interdependence. The rise of national chain retail business was an emergent, self-organizing response to the conditions of the late twentieth century. Those conditions are now coming to an end, and the Wal-Mart way of doing business will come to an end with them: the twelve-thousand-mile merchandise supply line to Asian factories; the “warehouse on wheels” made up of thousands of tractor-trailer trucks circulating endlessly between the container-ship ports and the big-box store loading docks. The damage to local economies that the “superstores” leave behind is massive. Not only have they destroyed multilayered local networks for making and selling things, they destroyed the middle classes that ran them, and in so doing they destroyed the cultural and economic fabric of the communities themselves. This is a lot to overcome. We will have to resume making some things for ourselves again, and moving them through smaller-scale trade networks. We may have fewer things to buy overall. The retail frenzy of recent decades will subside as we struggle to produce things of value and necessarily consume less.

We’ll have to make other arrangements for transporting people and goods. Not only do we desperately need to rebuild the railroad system, but electrifying it—as virtually all other advanced nations have done—will bring added advantages, since we will be able to run it on a range of things other than fossil fuels. We should anticipate a revival of maritime trade on the regional scale, with more use of boats on rivers, canals, and waterways within the U.S. Many of our derelict riverfronts and the dying ports of the Great Lakes may come back to life. If we use trucks at all to move things, it will be for the very last leg of the journey. The automobile will be a diminishing presence in our lives and, increasingly, a luxury that will be resented by those who can no longer afford to participate in the “happy motoring” utopia. The interstate highways themselves will require more resources to maintain than we will be able to muster. For many of us, the twenty-first century will be less about incessant mobility than about staying where we are.
We have to inhabit the terrain of North America differently, meaning a return to traditional cities, towns, neighborhoods, and a productive rural landscape that is more than just strictly scenic or recreational. We will probably see a reversal of the two-hundred-year-long trend of people moving from the country and small towns to the big cities. In fact, our big cities will probably contract substantially, even while they re-densify at their centers and along their waterfronts. The work of the New Urbanists will be crucial in rebuilding human habitats that have a future. Their achievement so far has been not so much in building “new towns” like Seaside, Florida, or Kentlands, Maryland, but in retrieving a body of knowledge, principle, and methodology for urban design that had been thrown away in our mad effort to build the drive-in suburbs.

It is harder to predict exactly what may happen with education and medicine, except to say that neither can continue to operate as rackets much longer, and that they, like everything else, will have to become smaller in scale and much more local. Our centralized school districts, utterly dependent on the countless daily trips of fleets of yellow buses and oppressive property taxes, have poor prospects for carrying on successfully in an energy-scarce economy. However, we will be a less affluent nation in the post-oil age, and therefore may be hard-pressed to replace them. A new, more locally based education system may arise instead out of home-schooling, as household classes aggregate into new, small, neighborhood schools. College will cease to be a mass-consumer activity, and may only be available to social elites—if it continues to exist at all. Meanwhile, we’re in for a pretty stark era of triage as the vast resources of the “medical industry” contract. Even without a global energy crisis bearing down on us, the federal Medicaid and Medicare systems would not survive the future as currently funded.

As a matter of fact, you can state categorically that anything organized on a gigantic scale, whether it is a federal government or the Acme Corporation or the University of Michigan, will probably falter in the energy-scarce future. Therefore, don’t pin your hopes on multinational corporations, international NGOs, or any other giant organizations or institutions.

Recent events have caused many of us to fear that we are headed toward a Big Brother kind of governmental tyranny. I think we will be lucky if the federal government can answer the phones, let alone regulate anyone’s life, in the post-oil era. As power devolves to the local and regional level, the very purpose of our federal arrangements may come into question. The state governments, with their enormous bureaucracies, may not be better off. Further along in this century, the real political action will likely shift down to the local level, as reconstructed neighborly associations allow people to tackle problems locally with local solutions.

It’s a daunting agenda, all right. And some of you are probably wondering how you are supposed to remain hopeful in the face of these enormous tasks. Here’s the plain truth, folks: Hope is not a consumer product. You have to generate your own hope. You do that by demonstrating to yourself that you are brave enough to face reality and competent enough to deal with the circumstances that it presents. How we will manage to uphold a decent society in the face of extraordinary change will depend on our creativity, our generosity, and our kindness, and I am confident that we can find these resources within our own hearts, and collectively in our communities.

JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER is the author of The Long Emergency and The Geography of Nowhere, as well as the novel Maggie Darling: A Modern Romance. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and Rolling Stone. He lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.

Bio-Intensive Gardening for Self-Sufficient Cities

Cultivating Our Garden, by John Jeavons

Biointensive farming uses less water, land, machinery, and fertilizer
– and more human labor
One of the articles in A Good Harvest (IC#42)
Fall 1995, Page 34
Copyright (c)1995, 1997 by Context Institute | To order this issue …

“They’re making people every day,
but they ain’t makin’ any more dirt.”
– Will Rogers

A sustainable community involves a dynamic inter-dependent relationship between each of us and the resources that sustain our lives. Rather than shirking human labor, trying to reduce the amount of it used or to increase its productivity in unsustainable ways, we need to exalt in its proper use and the maintenance of the very muscles involved in an effective human life. Properly performed, labor is not tedious or enervating, but strengthening and rewarding.

Using resources more efficiently – doing more with less – allows us to use our personal energy more effectively. The field of electronics was recently miniaturized on this basis. In fact, the world is on the verge of a major new discovery – that there are major economies of small scale, such as the miniaturization of agriculture. The sophisticated low-technology techniques and the approaches involved in this kind of food-raising will make possible truly sustainable agricultural practices globally.
Biointensive Mini-Farming

This miniaturization of agriculture is not new. Small-scale sustainable agriculture has supported such widely dispersed civilizations as the Chinese 4,000 years ago, and the Mayans, South Americans, and Greeks 2,000 years ago.

Ecology Action has dedicated almost a quarter-century to rediscovering the scientific principles that underlie these traditional systems. The people in Biosphere II in Arizona have been using techniques based on those outlined by Ecology Action: they raised 80 percent of their food for two years within a “closed system.” Their experience demonstrates that a complete year’s diet for one person can be raised on the equivalent of 3,403 square feet!

This is an improvement over traditional Chinese practices, which required 5,000 to 7,200 square feet. In contrast, it takes commercial agriculture 22,000 to 42,000 square feet to grow all the food for one person for one year, while bringing in large inputs from other areas. At the same time, commercial agricultural practices are causing the loss of approximately six pounds of soil for each pound of food produced.

Biointensive mini-farming techniques make it possible to grow food using 99 percent less energy in all forms – human and mechanical, 66 percent to 88 percent less water, and 50 percent to 100 percent less fertilizer, compared to commercial agriculture. They also produce two to six times more food and build the soil.
The Biointensive Method

The basics of this whole-system approach can be summarized as follows:

Most life in nature occurs at the interface of soil, water, air and sun. Biointensive soil preparation practices create growing beds with more surface area to maximize the effect of nature’s life processes. Double-dug beds, with soil loosened to a depth of 24 inches, aerate the soil, facilitate root growth, and improve water retention. The health and vigor of the soil are maintained through the use of compost. Close seeding spacing is used to protect the soil microorganisms, reduce water loss, and maximize yields. Companion planting facilitates the optimal use of nutrients, light and water, encourages beneficial insects and creates a vibrant mini-ecosystem within the garden. The use of open-pollinated seeds helps to preserve genetic diversity and enables gardeners to develop their own acclimatized cultivars.

A focus on the production of calories for the gardener and carbon for the soil ensures that both the gardener and the soil will be adequately fed and that the farm will be sustainable.

How can the soil’s nutrient fertility be preserved with agriculture continuously removing nutrients as one crop is harvested after another? One answer is surprising. Each person’s urine and manure contain approximately enough nutrients to produce enough food to feed that person. However, those nutrients are not enough when they are spread thinly over the one-half to one acre that it takes mechanized commercial agriculture to produce that person’s food.

Biointensive mini-farms require much less area to produce the same yield of crops, so the nutrients contained in one person’s wastes can be applied in a more concentrated way. This enables the nutrients to be fully effective, and high yields can result.

Because of this higher productivity, Biointensive practices could allow one-half to three-quarters of the world to be left in wild for the preservation of plant and animal diversity.

It has been said that Biointensive practices might make it possible to grow food for all the people in the US in just the area now used for lawns. This possibility could mean thriving agriculturally self-reliant cities with ‘green belts’ to produce all their food.
Scarcity vs. Abundance

Scarcity can be changed into abundance when sustainable, resource-conserving agricultural practices are used.

* The world continues to deplete its soils approximately 7 to 80 times faster with conventional forms of agriculture – even with organic practices – than they are built up in nature. Probably only 50 to 100 years’ worth of world soil productivity remains for us to use. We are rapidly depleting the soil base upon which civilization depends. In contrast, sustainable Biointensive farming, if used properly, can build the soil up to 60 times faster than in nature while producing more food and conserving resources.
* Economically, conventional agriculture in the US produces on the average up to $100 per sixteenth of an acre; the net return on a $500,000 investment on the average 500-acre farm is about $12,000, or a little over 2 percent. We are depleting our agricultural economic base and indirectly our farming community base. Biointensive economic mini-farming, in contrast, can produce up to $20,000 on a sixteenth of an acre through increased yields, decreased resource use, and direct marketing. It also offers a foundation for community-based agriculture.
* The average age of the US farmer is 55, with few young people entering farming. In fact, 0.2 percent of the population of the US is producing most of the nation’s food. We are depleting the nation’s skill base. With mini-farming approaches, everyone can be part of the rebuilding of farming skills wherever they are.
* 75 percent of all the seeds ever used in agriculture are estimated to have become extinct by 1990. Ninety five percent are expected to be extinct by the year 2000. We are depleting our genetic base by overdependence on too few highly specialized varieties. It is interesting to note that many, if not most, normal open-pollinated crop varieties will produce equally high Green Revolution-type yields with a fraction of the resources and few insect and disease problems when Biointensive techniques are used because of the healthy soil they produce.
* Conventional agriculture uses 100 times the energy in mechanical and human forms per pound of food produced, compared to Biointensive farming. This is because of current agriculture’s heavy dependence on machines and energy-intensive chemical fertilizers. We are depleting our energy base. Sustainable Biointensive practices, in contrast, recycle nutrients and are productive enough to be done manually without high energy consumption.
* Agriculture accounts for 80 percent of all the water used by people on this planet, and dozens of countries already have insufficient water for growing all the food needed for their populations. Further, the agricultural practices being used do not generally conserve water in our soil. The result is that we are in the process of depleting our available water base. Biointensive practices use a third to an eighth the water per pound of food produced as conventional farming practices. Thus, the amount of water available for farming, which is currently insufficient, can be more than enough.

It Is Simple to Begin

The thought of beginning to learn to grow all one’s own food seems overwhelming, but Ecology Action has designed a small one-bed growing unit from which to begin growing personalized solutions. This unit is a 100-square-foot bed that includes equal areas of compost, diet, and income crops. As we improve each 100-square-foot area of soil in our backyards or on our farms, we begin to understand our climate and the varieties of plants that thrive in our own micro-climates and mini-ecosystems. Each small portion that we grow of our own food enables us to better appreciate the farmers whose food we buy.

Voltaire in Candide suggests that if we each tend our own “garden,” the entire world will be transformed. In the process, all of our work will be filled with meaning. In this way, we will “grow people” who possess a whole new understanding: that we must grow soil rather than crops – create rather than consume. When we do so, the harvest for our nourishment will be abundant beyond our greatest expectations!

John Jeavons is known internationally for his work developing small-scale sustainable food production techniques. His food-raising techniques are being used in 108 countries, rich and poor.

Ecology Action, founded 24 years ago, has taught the Biointensive method to organizations and individuals in over 100 countries through tours and workshops, and more than 30 publications – some in other languages. For more information, write to Ecology Action, 5798 Ridgewood Road, Willits, CA 95490-9730.

Joint Meeting of Tucson Crossroads and Sustainable Tucson

Objectives for the December 12 meeting:

  • Teach-In on Water (Kerry Schwartz)
  • Discuss organization of our coalition for effective action:
  • Review of resources already in place; what critical elements are missing?
  • Identify the top two or three projects our coalition can accomplish in the next three to six months.
  • Share progress of coalition members pursuing independent projects.

December 12, Tuesday
4-6 pm
Ward Six Offices:
Midtown Ward Six
3202 East 1st Street
Tucson, Arizona 85716
Phone: (520) 791-4601

Ecological Economics

Excerpt from Rachel’s: Is It Time for A New Economics?

It is now time — long past time — for a Copernican/Darwinian
revolution in economics in which humans cease to be seen as the
privileged species, homo economicus — at the center of everything and
exempt from the limits of the biosphere. Instead, humans need to be
placed within the same systems that nourish every plant and animal on
Earth. In this case, however, there is a twist. Far from having to
realize how insignificant and unexceptional we are, we must come to
understand that we have evolved into a different species which
William Catton Jr. has dubbed “homo colossus,” a man-tool hybrid
capable of destroying the very habitat that sustains us and so many
other creatures.

The simple fact is that the economy cannot become bigger than the
biosphere. (There are, of course, some believers in Star Trek-style
fantasies who envision us exploiting and living on other planets. To
such people may I suggest that they get started on this project right
away since we are running out of time to turn things around here on
Earth). Humans already consume at least 40 percent of the
photosynthetic product of the Earth each year and, that’s an estimate
from 1986 when the population was 5.5 billion. Now it is 6.5 billion.
And it’s projected to be close to 9 billion by 2050. Could we
increase our share of the world’s photosynthetic product to 60 percent
as the 2050 projection implies and still survive? Would we wipe out
species upon whom we depend, but of which we currently know nothing?
Even if we could transition away from finite fossil fuels, would
finding a theoretical, but as yet unknown, unlimited and pollutionless
energy source really solve our problems? Or would it simply cause us
to bump up against other limits?

When you undergo the Copernican/Darwinian revolution in economics, you
cannot avoid such questions. The physical world and its limits must be
accounted for. To that end some researchers are proposing a
comprehensive biophysical economics. One outline of an approach to
such a problem can be found in an article entitled “The Need to
Reintegrate the Natural Sciences with Economics.”

The field of study now known as ecological economics has been
working on the problem in a piecemeal fashion for a long time. But
even though a comprehensive biophysical economics may never be
possible — since it would require understanding everything about the
natural world — we must attempt the feat for two reasons: 1) to
expose the dire peril in which neoclassical economics has placed us
and 2) to suggest ways to build an economy that can operate
indefinitely on the Earth and not one that only functions until it
destroys the Earth’s capacity to sustain us.

The French writer Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand is reputed to have
said, “Forests precede civilizations and deserts follow them.” It is
to this problem that economists must now turn themselves.

Has Politics Contaminated the Food Supply?

By Eric Schlosser
New York Times
December 11, 2006

This fall has brought plenty of bad news about food poisoning. More than 200
people in 26 states were sickened and three people were killed by spinach
contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. At least 183 people in 21 states got
salmonella from tainted tomatoes served at restaurants. And more than 160
people in New York, New Jersey and other states were sickened with E. coli
after eating at Taco Bell restaurants.

People are always going to get food poisoning. The idea that every meal can
be risk-free, germ-free and sterile is the sort of fantasy Howard Hughes
might have entertained. But our food can be much safer than it is right now.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 76 million
Americans are sickened, 325,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 die each year
because of something they ate.

Part of the problem is that the government¹s food-safety system is
underfinanced, poorly organized and more concerned with serving private
interests than with protecting public health. It is time for the new
Democratic Congress to reverse a decades-long weakening of regulations and
face up to the food-safety threats of the 21st century.

One hundred years ago, companies were free to follow their own rules. Food
companies sold children¹s candy colored with dangerous heavy metals. And
meatpackers routinely processed ³4D animals² — livestock that were dead,
dying, diseased or disabled.

The publication of Upton Sinclair¹s novel ³The Jungle² in 1906 — with its
descriptions of rat-infested slaughterhouses and rancid meat — created
public outrage over food safety. Even though the book was written by a
socialist agitator, a Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, eagerly read it.

After confirming Sinclair¹s claims, Roosevelt battled the drug companies,
the big food processors and the meatpacking companies to protect American
consumers from irresponsible corporate behavior. He argued that bad business
practices were ultimately bad for business. After a fight in Congress,
Roosevelt largely got his way with passage of the Meat Inspection Act and
the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

The decades that followed were hardly an idyll of pure food and flawless
regulation. But the nation¹s diverse agricultural and food-processing system
limited the size of outbreaks. Thousands of small slaughterhouses processed
meat, and countless independent restaurants prepared food from fresh, local
ingredients. If a butcher shop sold tainted meat or a restaurant served
contaminated meals, a relatively small number of people were likely to
become ill.

Over the past 40 years, the industrialization and centralization of our food
system has greatly magnified the potential for big outbreaks. Today only 13
slaughterhouses process the majority of the beef consumed by 300 million

And the fast-food industry¹s demand for uniform products has encouraged
centralization in every agricultural sector. Fruits and vegetables are now
being grown, packaged and shipped like industrial commodities. As a result,
a little contamination can go a long way. The Taco Bell distribution center
in New Jersey now being investigated as a possible source of E. coli
supplies more than 1,100 restaurants in the Northeast.

While threats to the food supply have been growing, food-safety regulations
have been weakened. Since 2000, the fast-food and meatpacking industries
have given about four-fifths of their political donations to Republican
candidates for national office. In return, these industries have effectively
been given control of the agencies created to regulate them.

The current chief of staff at the Agriculture Department used to be the beef
industry¹s chief lobbyist. The person who headed the Food and Drug
Administration until recently used to be an executive at the National Food
Processors Association.

Cutbacks in staff and budgets have reduced the number of food-safety
inspections conducted by the F.D.A. to about 3,400 a year — from 35,000 in
the 1970s. The number of inspectors at the Agriculture Department has
declined to 7,500 from 9,000.

A study published in Consumer Reports last week showed the impact of such
policies: 83 percent of the broiler chickens purchased at supermarkets
nationwide were found to be contaminated with dangerous bacteria.

Aside from undue corporate influence and inadequate financing, America¹s
food-safety system is hampered by overlapping bureaucracies. A dozen federal
agencies now have some food safety oversight. The Agriculture Department is
responsible for meat, poultry and some egg products, while the F.D.A. is
responsible for just about everything else.

And odd, conflicting rules determine which agency has authority. The F.D.A.
is responsible for the safety of eggs still in their shells; the Agriculture
Department is responsible once the shells are broken. If a packaged ham
sandwich has two pieces of bread, the F.D.A. is in charge of inspecting it
— one piece of bread, and Agriculture is in charge. A sandwich-making
factory regulated by the Agriculture Department will be inspected every day,
while one inspected by the F.D.A. is likely to be inspected every five

Neither agency has the power to recall contaminated food (with the exception
of tainted infant formula) or to fine companies for food-safety lapses. And
when the cause of an outbreak is unknown, it¹s unclear which agency should
lead the investigation.

Last year, Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Senator Richard
Durbin of Illinois, both Democrats, introduced an important piece of
food-safety legislation that tackles these problems. Their Safe Food Act
would create a single food-safety agency with the authority to test widely
for dangerous pathogens, demand recalls and penalize companies that
knowingly sell contaminated food.

It would eliminate petty bureaucratic rivalries and make a single
administrator accountable for the safety of America¹s food. And it would
facilitate a swift, effective response not only to the sort of inadvertent
outbreaks that have occurred this fall, but also to any deliberate
bioterrorism aimed at our food supply.

The Safe Food Act deserves strong bipartisan backing. Aside from industry
lobbyists and their Congressional allies, there is little public support for
the right to sell contaminated food. Whether you¹re a Republican or a
Democrat, you still have to eat.


Eric Schlosser is the author of ³Fast Food Nation² and ³Reefer Madness.²

Plant trees, disband the army, work together: the Tuscan way of surviving collapse

From the highly recommended website:

Plant trees, disband the army, work together: the Tuscan way of surviving collapse by Ugo Bardi.

Rob writes: Ugo Bardi is a Professor at the Dipartimento di Chimica at Università di Firenze in Italy, and is also President of ASPO Italy, who so ably hosted ASPO5 in Pisa earlier this year. In this article, Ugo delves back into the history of his region of Italy, Tuscany, and identifies strategies and lessons of relevance to societies in their attempts to respond to peak oil. Having lived in Tuscany myself for a couple of years, it is a part of the world I am very fond of, so here is an article which mixes post-peak solutions and Tuscan history, and offers some very useful points in so doing:

The fall of empires is a subject that has fascinated us from the time of Gibbon’s 18th century classic “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” More recently, in “The Collapse of Complex Societies” (1988) Joseph Tainter reports the case of 18 societies in history that declined and disappeared. Of these, the Roman Empire is still the one we know best and that fascinates us the most. Its fall was a major discontinuity in history; it was not just a reduction in population, nor just the disappearance of a political system. It was the loss of most of what we call “civilization”: government, laws, justice, art; everything. The science and the literature accumulated over nearly a millennium would have been completely lost had not been saved, in part, in the Irish monasteries and the Islamized East. It was the kind of collapse we fear for our own civilization.

But not all societies collapse so completely. There are cases in which a society manages to contain decline and to keep its structure, its traditions, and its way of life. One may be the decline of Tuscany after the great expansion of the Renaissance, a case that had many points in common with the fall of the Roman Empire, but which was not so abrupt and devastating. Centuries of history are a complex story to summarize in a few pages but, as a Tuscan, I think I can at least sketch the main elements of what happened in Tuscany after the start of the decline, around the end of the 16th century. From this story, perhaps we can learn something useful for us today.

Historians don’t agree on what are the causes that make societies decline; Tainter cites 11 different explanations in his book. However, we are starting to understand that the main cause of decline is the lack of resources which are, almost always, provided by agriculture. We can still see how agricultural decline brought down the Roman Empire when we look at the city of Antium on the Tyrrenian Sea. Today, Antium is an inland city but, in imperial times, it had been the gateway of Roman commerce; the riches of the Empire went through its harbor. The disappearance of Antium’s harbor tells us the story of an agricultural disaster.

We know that the Roman Empire reached its maximum expansion in the 2nd centurty A.D.; afterwards, without the riches that came from plundering its neighbors, it started declining. The only answer that the Romans could give to stop the fall was military; war was what they knew best, what they had built their empire on. They strenghtened their legions, they built new fortifications, they developed new and better weapons. In this way, they managed to keep the Empire together for a while. That, however, put a terrible strain on their agriculture. The land was overexploited; erosion progressively destroyed the fertile soil and transformed it into the silt that flowed with the Tiberis River and buried Antium’s harbor. Other silted port cities show that the problem was widespread all over the Empire. Eventually, erosion became so serious that agriculture collapsed and the Empire disappeared, destroyed by famines and depopulation.

Tuscany had been part of the Roman Empire and it had collapsed with it. But, in the period that followed, the Tuscan land was left in peace for centuries and could recover its fertile soil. In the Middle Ages, Tuscany could again produce enough food to sustain a growing population. The great economic expansion of Tuscany of the Renaissance came from industry and commerce, but it couldn’t have been possible without a healthy agriculture. But nothing can keep growing forever. With the 16th century, Tuscany started showing all the symptoms of agricultural overexploitation. Today, if you look at the city of Pisa on the Tuscan coast, you’ll see that it is an inland city. But, once, Pisa had been one the seafaring republics of the Middle Ages. In the 15th century, Pisa’s harbor is reported to have been already silting from sediments carried by the Arno River. In the 17th century, silting became so serious that the harbor had to be abandoned. The destiny of Pisa was the same as that of Antium centuries before. Overexploitation of the land had led to the loss of agricultural soil, carried to the sea by rivers. The sediments that destroyed the harbor of Pisa were once the rich soil that had supported the Tuscan population.

One of the reasons for the erosion of the Tuscan land was overpopulation, another was the the development of firearms. Firearms are made in steel and to make steel charcoal is needed. Charcoal comes from trees and when trees disappear, erosion appears. More wars meant that more trees had to be cut and that meant losing more fertile soil. The Tuscan agriculture was following the same path of decline of the Roman agriculture of several centuries before. With the decline of agriculture, the Tuscan economic system started imploding; commerce and industry could not survive without food.

The Tuscan cities declined also in terms of military strength. As it had happened to the Romans long before, Tuscany was invaded by more powerful neighbors. The free cities of Tuscany fell one by one. The republic of Florence fell to the Spanish Imperial Armies in 1530. The republic of Siena fell to the combined armies of Spain and of the Florentine Medici in 1555. Tuscany became a province of the Spanish Empire, independent only in name. In 1571, Tuscany still had enough resources to send galleys to fight alongside the Spanish ones at the battle of Lepanto, against the Turks. They brought back home some glory but nothing else. At the end of the 16th century, the proud citizens of Florence, the city that had been called the “New Athens,” started going hungry. According to a chronicler, in 1590 Florentines were reduced to eat a kind of bread that “in older times would have been given to dogs, and perhaps dogs would have refused it.” The whole 17th century was a disaster for Tuscany; the chronicles report famines, epidemics, locusts and all sorts of calamities. Tuscany had become one of the poorest regions of Europe; the situation was so bad that, in the last years of the century, the government was forced to forbid the export of all kinds of food as a last resort for fighting famines.

But Tuscany didn’t make the mistake that the Romans did, that of seeking for military solutions for their troubles. The Grand Dukes of Tuscany preferred instead to concentrate their resources on agriculture. They had new land reclaimed, they experimented with new techniques, and they continued the ancient medieval tradition of caring for the trees. In this, they were perhaps following Saint Giovanni Gualberto (995-1073), the Tuscan saint who spent most of his life planting trees. The first Duke who really made these policies the focus of his activity was Ferdinando 1st, who took over in 1587 and reigned until his death in 1609.

A modern image of St. Giovanni Gualberto, (995-1073) the Tuscan saint who spent his life planting trees.

Ferdinando favored agriculture and spoke of Tuscans as “worker bees” (“api operose”) meaning that they had to work hard all together. His motto was “Maiestate Tantum”, meaning that his reign was based on “dignity only” and not on miltary force. Some warlike spirit remained in Tuscany during Ferdinando’s reign and the Tuscan fleet managed to defeat the Turks in some minor battles. But the Dukes who followed progressively reduced military expenses. The navy was disbanded in 1646 and the army was reduced and strength until it was formally disbanded in 1781. Tuscany simply couldn’t afford war. Her borders had to be opened to invaders; it caused less harm than fighting them. It may not have been a glorious strategy but it worked. After the fall of Siena, in 1555, Tuscany didn’t see her cities besieged and bombarded until 1944.

The “Working Bees”, (“Api Operose”) symbol of Ferdinando 1st (1549-1609) Grand Duke of Tuscany, 1587-1609). Image on the monument in Piazza SS. Annunziata, Firenze.

Not everything was perfect all the time and the rules that protected trees were relaxed more than once. It is reported that, in 1780, a group of woodcutters fell on their knees in front of Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo, pleading hunger; this resulted in a decree liberalizing tree cutting. Later on, when Tuscany was already part of Italy, a new wave of deforestation started. But every time the mountains were reforested and agriculture remained a focus of the policy of the government. Pietro Leopoldo 1st was especially active in this field and, in 1753, he created the “Georgofili” academy with the specific task of promoting agriculture. The academy still exists today and its motto is “For the sake of public prosperity”.

The symbol of the Georgofili Academy esablished in Firenze in 1753. The writing says “In favor of public prosperity” (“Prosperitati Publicae Augendae”)

It took time, but eventually caring for agriculture had its effects. From the 18th century onward, agriculture managed a comeback. Famines didn’t disappeare but could be contained while commerce and industry restarted with a new network of riverways and roads. With the 19th century, Tuscany was back to a modest level of prosperity and the last recorded famine in Tuscany was in 1898. Even during the worst period, the old spirit of freedom and intellectual independence of the Renaissance had survived in Tuscany. In the early 17th century Ferdinando the 1st had created a safe haven in Leghorn for the Jews fleeing from Spain; Tuscany kept her universities and academies and, in 1786 Tuscany was the first European state to officially abolish torture and the death penalty.

Today, Tuscany is still one of the most forested regions of Italy, but times have changed. The present Tuscan administrators seem to be convinced that it is a good idea to pave the land with houses, highways, parking lots, and shopping centers, all in the name of “development”. Because of this building frenzy, some of the once fertile areas of Tuscany are starting to look like suburbs of Los Angeles. With a population four times larger than it was at the time of the Renaissance and with the oil crisis looming in the near future, Tuscany is facing difficult times. But we have a tradition of caring for the land that has helped us in the past. It will help us also in the uncertain future.

Can Tuscany be sees as a model of “soft collapse” for other regions of the world? Perhaps; at least it gives us a recipe that worked. We may summarize it as three rules from the history of Tuscany of the time of the Grand Dukes:

Plant trees
Disband the army
Work together

It doesn’t seem that the world is exactly following these rules, right now. But we may have to learn.

2 Responses to “ “Plant trees, disband the army, work together: the Tuscan way of surviving collapse” by Ugo Bardi. ”

Ugo Bardi says:
December 12th, 2006 at 11:45 am
Rob, I didn’t know that you had lived in Tuscany. Does your experience fit with the way I described the situation? Did you notice the “Los Angeles” style of the new developments?


Rob says:
December 12th, 2006 at 3:09 pm
Where I was living was very rural, a small village in the hills, and it was before Toscana became very desirable, at that point (1990) it was still a few hippy folks from the city buying up ruined farmhouses. Beautiful place, I loved it very much. I haven’t been back for many years apart from a quick dash to the ASPO conference and back. I lived in a small village called Pomaia, nr. Santa Luce, just inland from Cecina. I still dream about it often.

Lindianne says:
December 12th, 2006 at 5:10 pm
Ugo, Thanks for this excellent article. Tuscany’s experience is very relevant to what Tucson, Arizona and the Sonoran bioregion (once a fertile agricultural region) are going through right now as we gear up for sustainability, lest we face collapse. Your article will be posted on our website.

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Bamboo for Tucson

Another option for Tucson is bamboo construction. We must be very
concerned about introducing invasive species, but if we are going to
become “indigenous Tucsonans” we must be prepared to survive here.

These are two examples of remarkable bamboo construction — a 150 foot
car bridge and a 20,000 square foot pavilion. They do use concrete and
steel to reinforce the joints, but probably 100s of pounds, not 100s of
thousands of pounds.

Tres English
English Business Services
129 S. Irving Ave ¥ Tucson AZ 85711
1-520-795-3413 ¥

Did you know that there are species of bamboo that are drought resistant and, in fact, one species that grows south of us in the Sonoran Desert called Mexican Weeping Bamboo that makes a beautiful hedge and is also edible? Check out the Bamboo Ranch in west Tucson – an acreage that boasts a bamboo nursery and a bamboo grower who has been developing it for 20 years. email Matt Finstrom at: or look up this amazing enterprise in the phone book. Some of us in the natural building sector are growing “clumping” timber and edible bamboo from the Bamboo Ranch and wearing T-Shirts and other clothing made of spun bamboo!!!

Biofuels debate continues

ISIS Press Release 11/12/06

Biofuels: Biodevastation, Hunger & False Carbon Credits

Europe’s thirst for biofuels is fuelling deforestation and food price hikes, exacerbated by a false accounting system that awards carbon credits to the carbon profligate nations. A mandatory certification scheme for biofuels is needed to protect the earth’s most sensitive forest ecosystems, to stabilise climate and to safeguard our food security.
[Dr. Mae-Wan Ho]

Biofuels not necessarily carbon neutral nor sustainable: Biofuels are fuels derived from crop plants, and include biomass directly burnt, and especially biodiesel from plant seed-oil, and bioethanol from fermenting grain, sap, grass, straw or wood [1] (Biofuels for Oil Addicts, SiS 30). Biofuels have been promoted and mistakenly perceived to be ‘carbon neutral’, that they do not add any greenhouse gas to the atmosphere; burning them simply returns to the atmosphere the carbon dioxide that the plants take out when they were growing in the field. This ignores the costs in carbon emissions and energy of the fertiliser and pesticides used for growing the crops, of farming implements, processing and refining, refinery plants, transport, and infrastructure for transport and distribution. The extra costs in energy and carbon emissions can be quite substantial particularly if the biofuels are made in one country and exported to another, or worse, if the raw materials, such as seed oils, are produced in one country to be refined for use in another. Both are very likely if current trends continue.

Read the rest of this article here

Or read other articles in the energy section of the Institute of Science in Society Website


By Eric Auchard
December 10, 2006

[ See original article ]
BERKELEY, Calif. – Al Gore plans to start a grass-roots political movement
next month to seek a “freeze” on carbon emissions that scientists say are to
blame for global warming.

The former vice president’s campaign is modeled after the nuclear freeze
movement of the 1980s. Gore said he planned to enlist groups ranging from
entrepreneurs and activists to political leaders to push for stronger
policies to limit the growth of greenhouse gases.

“I think we need a ‘carbon freeze,’ ” Gore told policy and business leaders
Friday at a conference organized by a venture capital firm. “I intend to
launch an ongoing campaign of mass persuasion at the beginning of 2007.”

Gore said the grass-roots campaign would put heat on leaders in Washington
to come up with more sophisticated policies to address global climate

“I think we need a mass movement in the United States. I think it ought to
start at the grass roots,” said Gore, author of the book, “An Inconvenient
Truth,” which was made into a hit documentary film on global warming.

Gore said the power of the freeze demand is that it can operate at every
level of society — individuals can take steps to cut their use of
nonrenewable energies, and so can businesses and local and state

As a senator and arms control specialist, Gore had opposed the nuclear
freeze movement two decades ago because he thought it was “naive and

He said he has since recognized its impact on political leaders.

Gore was appearing at a two-day, closed meeting of a group called the
Greentech Innovation Network organized by Kleiner Perkins Caufield and
Byers, Silicon Valley’s most powerful venture capital firm.

The group, credited with helping to persuade Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger
to sign into law a model carbon emissions cap in September, is made up of
environmental entrepreneurs, policymakers, and academics.

John Denniston, a Kleiner Perkins partner, told reporters that his firm,
which has pledged to invest $200 million to fund green technology start-ups,
is prepared to help finance Gore’s political efforts.

Gore spoke on a panel that included Andy Karsner, US assistant secretary for
renewable energy.

Karsner said he agrees with Gore’s call to make environmental issues a moral
imperative, but said the righteous tone of such advocacy was

“In fact, what we lack in abundance is the ability to listen to one another
and engage in civic discourse,” the Bush administration official said.

A Conversation with Matt Simmons

by Stuart Staniford , The Oil Drum
November 15, 2005

While at the ASPO-USA Denver World Oil Conference, (Matt Simmons received the M. King Hubbert Award from ASPO-USA in November 2005) I managed to buttonhole Matt Simmons in a corner for a while. Here’s what we talked about.

SS: Tell me a little bit about where you grew up.

MS: I grew up in Davis County, Utah which is half way between Salt Lake City and Ogden. My dad had a legendary career coming from a really poor background to become one of the most successful commercial bankers in the Rockies.

SS: What was his name?

MS: Roy Simmons. He’s almost 90. When I was in college I was sure I was going to end up a commercial banker.

SS: Where’d you go to college?

MS: University of Utah, where everyone in our family went. One day I had a fraternity brother who came in and said, “I’m so excited today”, and I said, “Why?” He said, “I just got into Harvard Business School,” and I said, “What’s that?” I didn’t have any idea. I wasn’t thinking about grad school but luckily got into Harvard Business School.

Almost all my classmates were older than me; they were just shutting the door on people who were coming in right out of college. I couldn’t believe that all these older friends didn’t know what they were going to do! I still thought I was going to be a commercial banker in Utah. But then I had this professor; I reluctantly signed up for a really tough 2nd-year course because my finance professor told me it was the best finance course in the school, even though it was called “Advanced Production Problems”, and I hated production.

I loved it, and then, before grades came out, the Professor (who the book is dedicated to, C. Wickham Skinner) his secretary came and said “Professor Skinner wants to see you.” So I went over, very timidly, to see Professor Skinner and he asked if I would be interested in staying on and working with him as a research assistant — a case writer. I said, “Do what?” I didn’t know the job existed. He suggested before I do that I really ought to enroll in the doctoral program because I could do both at the same time – and I said, “What?!”

After a year of working for him, he took me to lunch and he told me he’d traded me, because he said it would be fabulous if I stayed on and got my doctoral degree and taught. But I needed a mentor in finance so he’d traded me to Pearson Hunt, who was the senior finance professor. My heart sunk because one professor was really dynamic and the other wasn’t. So I wanted to stay but it wasn’t on the cards.

SS: He didn’t ask you, he just told you?

MS: Well, I mean, first of all he said, “If you’d like to”, but he’d already arranged it, and he was doing it for me. So, the first year I wrote fourteen cases, the second year I wrote 3 cases – I just had a ton of extra time, so ended up being in the deal business, while I was with Pearson Hunt. It was the late `60s stock market era, and I thought I was the smartest stock market guy in the world, so I started managing some money for some professors. One of the few cases I did for Pearson Hunt, it was on American Cement of all things. It came from combining with a trip to see my parents who were going to Palm Springs for a banking Mergers and Acquisitions seminar. Dad said, “There’s an interesting young guy in our class, that keeps asking all the best questions, he’s a deep sea diver.” So I hung around the coffee break the next day and introduced myself. He was Laddie Handelman, he was the founder of a company called California Divers.

So I said, “Are you a treasure diver?”, and he almost hit me, because he hated them. “No,” he said, “we actually dive to assist developing offshore oil and gas.” He said they were probably going to sell the company to one of the offshore drilling contractors… I said to myself, growing fast, interesting, “Why don’t you raise some venture capital?” and he said, “What’s that?” That was my introduction to the energy business.

Laddie was the founder of two New York Stock Exchange subsea services companies. Oceaneering (which he changed the name to). Then once the company got up to $85-100 million a year business, I was one of the directors, thought he was doing a bad job so I helped kick him out of the company. I knew that he would kill me if the company didn’t make it. So I thought I’d lost a really close friend and also, a major client of our firm.

SS: So you had a firm by this point?

MS: Yeah, I had a firm by this point. Anyway, then he founded a new company, took the old name back, Caldive, and now on the New York Stock Exchange there’s Oceaneering and there’s Caldive.

When my two years were up at Harvard, that was sort of a fish-or-cut-bait time. I needed then to either get serious and start my dissertation or move on to something else. This research assistant thing wasn’t a perpetual job. I wasn’t interested in finishing my doctorate degree and in the meantime I couldn’t do anything else because I was so busy doing all these deals. I raised money for this diving company…

SS: Because doing deals is fun. People who like it — it’s a drug almost.

MS: Oh yeah, I was having a lot of fun. I was raising this money for Oceaneering – $250,000 for 40% of the company. What they were doing at the time, which I didn’t actually put into perspective for 25 years, was perfecting the mixed gas diving tables so that man could safely go beyond 200 ft. Had that not happened, we wouldn’t have had a deep water industry. So I was actually working with the Thomas Edison of deep water. All the robotic stuff started around the same period of time.

I took a tiny office in downtown Boston, sort of middle of June. June 30th, the Dow Jones peaked at 1000 and luckily no-one told me that it would be 1982 before the Dow went back to 1000. By the next year the over-the-counter market had collapsed and all these stocks that I’d done so well in had gone down by 99%. My nest egg didn’t look quite like that, so I was lucky I was putting some deals together. I got more and more involved in working with these companies, and I got fascinated with companies that weren’t oil companies but oil service companies. No one in Houston seemed to understand this was a real business. When the Arab embargo of 1973 happened, within two weeks I realized it was a big deal; we’ve had 30 years of cheap oil and now we’re going to have high oil prices, and that will open the door to a lot of projects.

SS: Did you have any recognition of the U.S. peak in production?

MS: Oh, hell no, I didn’t know anything about the oil and gas business. But I thought no-one knows anything about the oil service industry, I might know more about the oil service industry, because no-one else knows about it. That’s my point.

Every time I’d get back to Boston I’d have to do things in other industries, paper industry, some medical electronics and some land development; this stuff was boring as can be. But the North Sea was opening up and I thought I could set up a firm. A merchant bank in London had been wanting me to work for them and I thought I could get them to become a shareholder, get a couple of guys to join me. My younger brother would be perfect because he’d just graduated from Harvard. So I did my Dad two bad turns. I stayed away from the job, and I kept my brother away from the job. May 1, 1974, we opened our doors to be a dedicated investment bank to the oil service industry. Because we weren’t trying to be energy experts, or oil and gas experts, but trying to be oil services experts, we subscribed to all of the best analysis of what was going on in the oil and gas industry. So we saw all these projections about how oil was going to go to $100 or more, and then the industry collapsed.

I thought we were going out of business. It took me about a year to understand all of the people we were subscribing to were idiots. I started looking into the primary data, supply and demand. I thought, God, it was so obvious that we were going to roll over. That’s when I became a student of energy statistics. I was never again going to leave my career in the hands of the experts to say what the big picture is, and then we’ll take that big picture and adapt it to oil services. I spoke all over in the 1980s about how the depression in the oil industry might go on for decades. If you didn’t basically get the costs less than the revenues, then you were going to go out of business. So we did a massive amount of consolidation, jamming companies together, bankruptcy work and so forth.

By the end of the `80s I had convinced myself that the era was coming to an end. The capacity excess was very small. All these awful things were over. You know the Viet Nam general who said in order to save the village we had to destroy it? To save the oil services, we had to destroy it. Some of the projects we worked on, the Nirvana event was when we did a final analysis that said if these three companies come together they can fire 4,000 people and 1,000 people will have sustainable jobs. I learned how to go to industry forums and tell people they all had AIDS. Very unpleasant news that nobody wanted to hear, but people started applauding because I was speaking reality. When people know the truth, even if it’s brutal, it’s better than being in denial and then going out of business.

When I turned on a dime, and I started talking about growing again, people thought I had lost my marbles. By then I was really intently starting to look at, with low rig count, we’re going to have collapsed production, the United States is going to end up in a decade, decade and a half, with half the production we have today without drilling for it. I wasn’t involved with things like Hubbert’s Peak, I just thought if you don’t drill wells, you don’t grow production. The excess was drained away. The only place you couldn’t measure the excess was the Middle East. Even if they have excess capacity, they don’t have the logistics to get there. I started talking about the fact that the gas bubble had disappeared, the oil bubble had disappeared, the rig bubble had disappeared, and unless we started expanding we were going to get into problems, because the low price were stimulating demand much faster than anyone thought – when everyone thought demand wasn’t growing, it was actually growing. The big collapse only lasted four years.

Ten years ago I started doing analysis on depletion. All these oil field technologies that we helped save were being hyped as doing things they were not doing, but what they were doing was creating decline rates that we’d never been able to do before. Because you couldn’t pull hydrocarbons out as fast before. In the last five years I have become one of the most famous speakers on depletion. It was in almost every talk I gave.

SS: Would you agree that these technologies do increase recovery rate?

MS: No.

SS: Not at all?

MS: Well, once in a great while.

SS: My understanding is that industry recovery rates have gone up from where they were twenty, thirty, years ago…

MS: There are always two or three exceptions: the Troll field in the North Sea, where they discovered, before they started producing, that underneath was a three foot layer of additional oil-bearing sands, they could get them both at the same time. That was one of the few cases. Sure, they could recover another billion and a half barrels of oil, but it doesn’t have anything to do with running into decline, it’s just managing the tail.

SS: But it has increased the recovery rate somewhat?

MS: No, not much. By 1997, 1998 I was basically having concern that we were heading for a bad landing and then came the oil price collapse, again.

SS: With the Asian flu?

MS: With that, and OPEC’s overproduction, we had the biggest oil glut we’ve ever had – 3.5 million barrels a day. The only problem is that we couldn’t find it. I had been a very harsh critic of the IEA’s data for the previous 4 years because it was always wrong data, always — by the time you got good data with the revisions it had all changed. When they started talking about the missing barrels, if you couldn’t find the missing barrels then we didn’t have a glut. But if the barrels were missing, you could still have a glut. For a year and a half, with the biggest oil collapse in fifty years, there were missing barrels, missing barrels, missing barrels, and at the apex they were looking for 700 million barrels of oil they couldn’t find. And I was thinking, this is just awful, we’re going to destroy the oil industry with bad data. We can’t be missing barrels, we either have demand higher than we think or supply is lower. If you have a glut it will manifest itself in inventory. What we’re looking for now is about ten times more than the excess tankers and tank farms in the world, so it would have to be stored on the moon. Or it’s actually stored in the reservoirs; it was never produced.

The bottom of the oil collapse, February of 1999, the industry had believed the price collapse was permanent. The Economist had this unbelievable cover story that they admitted was the biggest blooper in their history: “Drowning in Oil.” There was a thesis that oil prices wouldn’t stay at ten, they would go to five. They would stay there from half a decade to a decade because Saudi Arabia was about to flood the world with cheap oil. They had this hundred-billion dollar war chest and I thought, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” Problem is, everyone believes this. I talked to CEO’s of all the major oil companies, talked to Dan Yergin, and I said this is stupid – Saudi Arabia is insolvent, there’s not going to be any hundred billion dollars. What was funny was the cover story came out on Tuesday and on Friday the petroleum ministers of Venezuela, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia announced that they’d agreed that collectively they were going to take two million barrels a day off the market to get this scourge off their backs and oil prices then went from $10 to $37 18 months later. They cut into a balanced market.

So by this time I’m really intensely going after the data issues. Then I was asked by the Petroleum Council if I would be one of the taskforce chairmen of this big study being done on natural gas. In that study, I realized that – I was the Demand Taskforce chair – that I didn’t know anything about electricity. I thought that power generation was power, turbines or something, pistons. No, it was just electricity. I did a quick study for about three months and ended up learning more about electricity than almost anyone else. It’s only when you can finally connect all the energy dots that you start understanding the whole thing. You go back and forth between the electricity markets, the natural gas markets, the oil markets, that you start understanding the whole thing – anchored with a very good knowledge of the mechanics through the oil service industry.

I became more and more outspoken about how this isn’t going to end well. I did this world giant oil field study, what the top ten, twenty, oil fields are, no one seemed to know. And that was an eye-opener, that in the Middle East there were only a handful of fields that produced really well, and they were all really old. These people that say the Middle East can produce everything – why did they never produce any more? Because all these fields are old. Look at the Iranian fields. There are four or five fields that used to be a million barrels a day and are now way less.

Somewhere around there I got roped in with this peak oil group of people. I never tried to understand reserves. If you would basically go a decade adding 125% more than you produce then you’d be doubling your production. Maybe they are doubling their reserves, but the decline curve is so steep that it doesn’t matter. I finally realized that no they aren’t real reserves.

And I’m also working very hard, in 1990 the firm had made it through the worst industrial collapse in the only area were were in; we didn’t have any diversification. I thought that was the only risk we’d face, if we can do that, we can survive forever. And by then we’re the absolute oil-service specialists in the world, we’re known around the world for that. So then I’ve got to develop a second generation management so the firm actually survives me. Doing that allowed me more time to do analysis, which I have always loved doing. I’m basically an educator at heart, or a teacher at heart, or an analyst at heart. I’d rather do that than work on deals. And for thirty-odd years, I was a really good deal person.

I finally get into this odd thing asked by this friend in Austin to be on this 9-person delegation to Saudi Arabia and I’m really excited about it until the trip gets postponed about eight times, and I’m getting so busy. It’s 2003 and one of the VPs calls and says they want to pin down a date in late January or early February and I say I really can’t do it. Was a great idea last spring and summer, but I’ve lost my window. I’m going to Paris to speak and two weeks later I’m going to China. He says, what if we plan our trip and get you back that Thursday in Paris. I said, “Ok, that’s fine”, thinking, “This will fall apart again.” The week before we’re supposed to go, my assistant keeps asking shouldn’t we call? And I said, “No, let sleeping dogs lie.” And seven days before we’re supposed to leave she gets this call from Dallas saying they Federal Expressed seven passports, can we walk them all over to the Saudi Consulate? We’re going next Thursday and our visas are approved.

SS: So you almost didn’t go?

MS: My wife that weekend was so mad at me, that I had basically agreed to do this trip. She said, “We’re about to go to war, you have five daughters.” I was mad at myself because I was about to waste a week. So I said, “Who are we going to see?” Well, we don’t know that, we’re going to be told that when we arrive there. Why did I do this?

So we arrive there and Herbert Hunt says we all meet up in Paris and we take the Air France flight to Riyadh and I’m thinking we’re going to hang around some government guest house, maybe have three appointments, and I’m so busy. We arrive and I’m told get ready for about two hours of getting through customs. But they said, “Would Mr. Hunt and his delegation please come to the front of the plane?” and we get to the front of the plane and there are two guys in robes and who say, “Gentlemen, welcome to Saudi Arabia, let’s just go through the side door here.” We have a VIP trip, it was just unbelievably interesting, six days. I’m taking copious notes and every time we get close to anything to do with oil I keep asking innocent questions. We finally tour the Abqaiq processing plant. I’d never seen a GOSP [Gas Oil Separating Plant] before. I ask, basically, what’s going on. They say, when the oil comes in there will be all this water. and we have to strip the water out then take the water and recycle it. “Why is there water in it, is there a river?” No, that’s our primary drive. I’m looking at these water pipes and thinking, that’s an awful lot of water. I’m taking notes and thinking, if there’s this much water…I know what water does. We’ve done all these projects in water handling. The next day we’re having all these presentations and sitting there thinking something isn’t right. On the plane going back to Paris, and Herbert Hunt is this really good oil guy, I say Herbert, look at all these dots. Could these fields be on the brink of finally running into decline? What would the world do? So I go home and said I’m going to wrestle this to the ground because now I know what to look for. I discovered this unbelievable treasure trove of technical papers at the Society for Petroleum Engineers, and by the time I got thirty-nine of them that I randomly downloaded, I realized this is a far more serious problem, and I’m going to write a really serious white paper this summer. I decided to go back and systematically go through more papers. By the end of the summer I had gone through about 150 papers and stacked them by their individual field and read them chronologically, and thought, I’m going to write a book and self publish, get this thing out to the public because this is a myth.

But it wasn’t just the two-and-a-half years, it was actually thirty years and a great deal of intellectual curiosity and becoming a real skeptic of all these energy myths. Even in the early `70s when we’d go into these companies, our modus operandi was put a memorandum together so that you know more about the company than the owner of the company does. Because if you go into it half-baked, that’s how deals fall apart.

SS: Because surprises come up in the middle?

MS: Yeah, so you’d say “You have ten drilling rigs, how many wells do you drill each?” And they’d say, “Oh, about 10”, and I’d say, “No you don’t, you drill about five, and here’s the data.” Amazing how many people just fake stuff. At any rate, that’s the whole background.

SS: You have read the CERA report…

MS: Yeah, yeah, sure.

SS: What’s your critique of it? Obviously you disagree radically.

MS: Well, if it is a detailed bottoms up field-by-field they only name about 30 fields, ten a year…

SS: This is true in the full report as well?

MS: Yeah, I read the full report – it’s 51 pages

SS: They don’t have an appendix with all the fields?

MS: No, not in the one they give to their private clients, that people pay for. They list 10 fields coming on in 2005, 10 coming on 2006, 10 in 2007…

SS: There’s about 2 million barrels a day in each year…

MS: 2 million barrels a day, and they have names. The thing that’s wrong with them is that they assume that they all happen. And they assume they all happen that year. And they assume that none of them decline. Their biggest one for 2005 unfortunately won’t happen until next year. Thunderhorse. It’s not their fault. […] But the thing is, a lot of the fields don’t have names.

SS: Let me get this clear, are you saying you don’t think there’s 16 million barrels a day of new capacity, or are you saying there may well be 16 million barrels a day, but you don’t think they’re taking into account the decline?

MS: I don’t think they can possibly do 16 million barrels a day with this list of projects without naming them. I think they’re notional projects.

SS: Chris Skrebowski is claiming 16 in new projects.

MS: I don’t think so; he’s got quite a different list. He really takes issue with the list.

SS: The totals are similar, for new capacity.

MS: We won’t bring on that new capacity, we’re out of drilling rigs. It’s too bad people didn’t realize we’re running out of rigs and we won’t resolve the rig problem until well after 2010. But to call it a field-by-field bottoms up and then just have a notional idea… if a field does not have a name today, it won’t be done by the end of 2009. We just would not have time. The whole thing is typical of the analysis they did when they assured all of their clients that we had abundant robust natural gas, all these pessimists about natural gas are just flat wrong. And they did a bottom-up study then too. And they did the bottoms up story then, too. And they turned out, unfortunately, to be as wrong as me promising that there is a Santa Claus, and you finding that there wasn’t.

And with that, Matt had to rush off to be on TV again.

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Grain-Derived Ethanol: The Emperor’s New Clothes

by Robert Rapier
March 23, 2006
Energy security. Homegrown fuels. Better markets for our farmers. And by gosh, it’s good for the environment. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Where do I sign up?

However, the truth behind grain-derived ethanol is masked behind half-truths and myths promoted by a very powerful lobby on behalf of agricultural and ethanol interests. This is one of the biggest scams in operation today, enabled by politicians who fear the political power of that powerful lobby. I will dissect some of the claims in this essay, and show why grain-based ethanol is a huge misallocation of resources.

First, what do I know about ethanol? I grew up on a farm, and my family still farms. I wanted to help farmers and the environment, so I went to a graduate school where I could be a part of a research project that was doing just that. My research group in graduate school was working on the conversion of biomass (aka cellulose) into ethanol. Biomass conversion via microorganisms was the topic of my thesis. After graduation, I worked several years for a chemical company in various roles (R&D, process, production) supporting propanol and butanol production. I currently work for a major oil company, and I try to stay current on developments in the alternative energy fields. In 2005, my company sent me to the state legislature to provide expert testimony regarding a proposed ethanol mandate for my state. My testimony generated a lot of discussion, and I was called back to the stand ten times to answer questions. Despite some very contentious questioning, nobody rebutted the arguments that I made, which is the gist of this essay.

There is a pretty good consensus that oil production will peak in the next 10-20 years. Some are suggesting that it has already happened. I share the view that an oil peak is on the horizon, and I believe that it is critical for our very way of life to prepare for the imminent changes ahead. It is clear that sooner or later we will need to develop sustainable alternative fuel sources for transportation. However, grain-based ethanol production is not sustainable in the long-term.

A lot has been written about the energy balance of grain ethanol. Clearly, to be renewable, the Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROI) must be greater than 1.0. Pimentel at Cornell and Patzek at Berkley have argued that there is actually a net loss of energy when producing ethanol (as well as some other biofuels) (1). I do not share this view, although there is enough uncertainty in the data that there is a possibility that the EROI for grain ethanol is less than 1.0. However, in order to make my point, I am going to use the data from a 2002 USDA study by Shapouri et al. entitled “The Energy Balance of Corn Ethanol: An Update”(2). To be certain, Shapouri is an advocate of grain ethanol. In his report, Shapouri argues that when a BTU credit is taken for co-products like animal feed, the EROI is 1.34. In other words, for 1 BTU of energy invested, the total BTU value out was 1.34 BTUs if co-products were included.

At this point, it is important to point out a bit of accounting sleight of hand utilized by Shapouri, as well as a number of others when calculating EROI for ethanol. Note that the actual energy inputs into the process according to him are 77,228 BTU per gallon of ethanol produced (using the higher heating value, or HHV). The BTU value given for a gallon of ethanol (HHV) was 83,961. Therefore, excluding co-product credits, the EROI would appear to be 83,961/77,228, or 1.09. He includes a co-product credit of 14,372 BTU, which should raise the overall value of the BTU products to (83,961 + 14,372), or 98,333 BTUs. This would imply an EROI of 98,333/77,228, or 1.27. However, Shapouri, like many ethanol advocates, performs a completely illegitimate accounting trick to exaggerate the EROI of ethanol. He uses the 14,372 co-product credit to reduce the energy input of 77,228 and assumes an energy input of just 62,856 BTUs/gallon. Since the co-products are not actually used as inputs in the process, this is invalid. But that is not the most serious issue. When he uses the co-product credit to offset the energy input, it should be removed from the product side. Shapouri includes it on both sides of the equation – reduce the inputs with the co-product credit, and increase the BTU output with the co-product credit.

Consider this analogy. I invest $100, and I get a return of $20 and another $40 worth of goods (co-product). What is my return on investment (ROI)? Most people would say that I got a total return of $60 on an investment of $100, for an ROI of 60%. If we utilize Shapouri-style accounting, we would use the $40 co-credit to offset our initial investment. We would then argue that we only invested $60 to get a return of $60, for an ROI of 100%. So, the answer to the question – “When does a $60 return on a $100 investment amount to a 100% return on investment?” – is “Whenever the USDA is doing the accounting.”

To give another example of why this accounting practice is invalid, consider a case in which we invested 100 BTUs of energy, and got in return 100 BTUs of animal feed and 1 BTU of usable energy. What is the EROI? Using Shapouri-style accounting, the EROI is infinite, since the 100 BTUs of co-product completely offset our initial investment. We invested nothing, and got 1 BTU in return! Clearly this is not a valid way of accounting for our energy balance, but this practice is common in ethanol accounting.

So, we have an exaggerated EROI in the case of ethanol, but what’s the bottom line? Energy is being created, right? Isn’t that what we are after?

Yes, we are after energy creation (indirectly via capture of solar energy). However, the EROI must be very good, or the price we pay for this energy creation will be much too high. At present there is a federal subsidy on ethanol that amounts to $0.51/gallon. Let’s consider what we are getting for the subsidy. A gallon of gasoline contains 125,000 BTUs (same HHV basis as ethanol). In the Shapouri paper, the net gain reported in producing a gallon of ethanol was 21,000 BTUs. This means that we have to produce 125,000/21,000, or 5.95 gallons of ethanol before we have generated the energy contained in 1 gallon of gasoline. Given a federal subsidy of $0.51 a gallon, we have spent 5.95*$0.51, or $3.03 subsidizing replacement of 1 gallon of gasoline! This amounts to $24.29 of federal subsidy for every million BTUs (MMBTU) of energy created. Contrast this with a natural gas price of $7.00 per MMBTU. That doesn’t even factor in various state subsidies which push the overall subsidy up to over $4.00 per gallon of gasoline displaced. So, taxpayers pay this, but then they still have to buy the ethanol. Any way you slice it, this looks like a bad deal to me.

I questioned Shapouri about this in an e-mail. I wrote that the subsidies appeared to be way out of line, considering that the subsidy on wind power was about $5/MMBTU. In his response, he made no attempt at all to rationalize or defend these subsidies. He wrote If we want to produce fuel ethanol from biomass and crop residues, then ethanol should compete with gasoline on the BTU bases. We do not have the technology yet. But in the future it is a possibility. His conclusion is the same one I came to in graduate school in the 90’s: Someday the technology may be economical for biomass, but grain-based ethanol is not even in the ballpark.

Also note that Shapouri’s paper examined the energy balances for the 9 highest corn producing states. He used a weighted average for the states (Table 4 in his report) and concluded that on average it takes 57,476 BTU to produce a bushel of corn. It is this average on which his EROI is based. However in states like Nebraska, where corn must be irrigated, they concluded that it takes 68,120 BTUs to produce a bushel of corn. In other words, the energy balance for some states is far less favorable than others, and may be negative in some cases (even using Shapouri’s methodology).

What of the claims from the pro-ethanol literature such as: Ethanol production is extremely energy efficient, with a positive energy balance of 125%, compared to 85% for gasoline (3). If these claims were true, then would they actually need ethanol subsidies? Ethanol could put oil companies out of business if this claim had merit.

In fact, however, such claims are false. These claims are based on the use of two different accounting methods designed to show ethanol in a positive light. The energy balance for ethanol is calculated for the entire life cycle, and that for gasoline is calculated on the basis of a barrel of crude oil ready to be refined. We can calculate gasoline based on an entire life cycle to obtain a true apples to apples comparison. It takes only about 1 barrel of oil energy input to net 10-30 barrels of oil from the ground, depending on the source. So, this step has an efficiency of at least 1000%. Once the 85% energy efficiency is factored in for refining gasoline from the oil, the positive energy balance for gasoline ranges from 850% to well over 1,000%. That’s why gasoline costs significantly less than ethanol on a BTU basis. The claim that gasoline is less efficient is just another piece of propaganda used to make the public believe ethanol is better than it is. It would be interesting to see a closed-loop ethanol plant, in which the ethanol they produce provides the energy for the plant. It would not take long for the charade to fall apart, as it would become apparent just how dependent they are on fossil fuels.

I have not even addressed the environmental impacts of growing corn to produce fuel. This is usually given a “free pass” when considering the economics of corn ethanol. Consider a recent report by Lester Lave and Michael Griffin, from Carnegie Mellon University. They write:

Corn farming is rough on the environment. Soil erosion due to wind and water is rampant. Fertilizer and pesticide runoffs produce algae blooms that result in “dead zones,” including one in the Gulf of Mexico that is so polluted it cannot support aquatic life. Furthermore, building the ethanol processing plants will take 3–4 years, and gas stations would have to commit to providing ethanol. And, because ethanol uses only the starch in corn, not the oil, protein, or other components, converting corn into ethanol is attractive only if there is a market for the byproducts. Opinions differ, but some estimate that byproduct markets could saturate well short of 11 billion gallons of production.

So, we have a marginal energy balance, subsidies that are far out of line with what we are getting for the money, and we are damaging the environment in the process. This idea sounds like something hatched by politicians and kept alive by lobbyists with deep pockets. Which is, in fact, the truth of the matter.

This was the gist of my testimony at the state legislature in 2005. I made an offer to the representatives, as well as to the ethanol proponents and general members of the audience. I told them that I would hang around and answer every single question or criticism they had about my testimony. That was quite interesting. I was cursed by one of the sponsors of the bill. I was accused of protecting the interests of “Big Oil”. I was blamed for the war in Iraq (despite the fact that my state gets all of our imports from Canada). Lots of people told me that I had my facts wrong, but every one of them backed down when I asked for specifics. Nobody rebutted my argument.


1. Pimentel, David. The Limits of Biomass Energy. Encyclopedia of Physical Sciences and Technology, September 2001.

2. Shapouri, H., J.A. Duffield, and M. Wang. 2002. “The Energy Balance of Corn Ethanol: An Update”. AER-814. Washington, D.C.: USDA Office of the Chief Economist.

3. This claim seems to have originated with the American Coalition for Ethanol, but can be found on a number of the ethanol advocates’ information sheets. It is also promoted by Argonne National Laboratory through their misleading GREET model.

4. The Green Bullet

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Global-warming ‘time bomb’ seen in Arctic melting


September 7, 2006

Global-warming gases trapped in the soil are bubbling out of the thawing permafrost in amounts far higher than previously thought and may trigger what researchers warn is a climate “time bomb.”
Methane — a greenhouse gas 23 times as powerful as carbon dioxide — is being released from the permafrost at a rate five times as fast as thought, according to a study being published today in the journal Nature. The findings are based on new, more accurate measuring techniques.
“The effects can be huge,” said lead author Katey Walter of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. “It’s coming out a lot, and there’s a lot more to come out.”
Scientists worry about a global-warming vicious cycle that was not part of their already gloomy climate forecast: Warming already under way thaws permafrost, soil that has been continuously frozen for thousands of years. Thawed permafrost releases methane and carbon dioxide. Those gases reach the atmosphere and help trap heat on Earth in the greenhouse effect. The trapped heat thaws more permafrost and so on.
“The higher the temperature gets, the more permafrost we melt, the more tendency it is to become a more vicious cycle,” said Chris Field, director of global ecology at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, who was not part of the study. “That’s the thing that is scary about this whole thing. There are lots of mechanisms that tend to be self-perpetuating and relatively few that tend to shut it off.”
Some scientists say this vicious cycle already is under way, but others disagree.
Most of the methane-releasing permafrost is in Siberia. Another study earlier this summer in the journal Science found that the amount of carbon trapped in this type of permafrost — called yedoma — is much more prevalent than originally thought and may be 100 times the amount of carbon released into the air each year by the burning of fossil fuels.
It won’t all come out at once or even over several decades, but if temperatures increase, then the methane and carbon dioxide will escape from the soil, scientists say.
Specialists in Arctic climate are coming up with research plans to study the permafrost effect, which is not well-understood or -observed, said Robert Corell, chairman of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, a study group of 300 scientists.
“It’s kind of like a slow-motion time bomb,” said Ted Schuur, a professor of ecosystem ecology at the University of Florida and co-author of the study in Science.

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Electrification of Transportation is key to Tucson’s Sustainable Mobility

by Bob Cook
October 6, 2006

Transportation is the largest user of energy, accounting for more than 60% of all energy demand.  More than 99% of all transportation is powered by petroleum fuels and more than 65% of U.S. petroleum consumption is from imported oil. Trends in petroleum and natural gas supply and demand indicate rising costs and prices will be the rule during the next twenty years.

In 2005, the Tucson region consumed more than 600 million gallons of gasoline and diesel fuels, up from 450 million gallons in 1998. Of greater concern, local expenditures for transportation fuels are increasing significantly, from $480 million in 1998 to $1.84 billion in 2005 – an increase of 380%.

Energy use as well as environmental impacts of transportation will become an even more important factor in the health of our economy. Deciding on competing energy strategies will require that rigorous energy and environmental analyses be applied across the board.

Given the size and diversity of the transportation sector, a number of strategic choices exist to reduce reliance on petroleum. These include electrification of transportation, alternate modes of mobility, conservation and fuel efficiency improvements, and development of biofuels. None of these strategies are sufficient to maintain current consumption trends but efforts in all these areas have already begun. For example, during the last decade the US Department of Energy’s Clean Cities program in the metro area has already achieved an annual displacement of 3 million gallons of petroleum fuels – a half of one percent of total consumption — in 2005 by using alternative fuels and hybrid electric vehicles.

There is increasing evidence that even the Kyoto Protocol goals will be insufficient to reverse and mitigate rising greenhouse gas levels. Other strategies for transportation will be necessary. These will likely require reversing the current trend of increasing per capita miles traveled by motorized means. These include lifestyle changes; compact, mixed-use land patterns; home-based work; and increase of local production over imports.

Our growing dependence on imported oil for transportation fuels is one of the most critical issues confronting transportation. While efforts to develop renewable biofuels from plant crops are important, most experts including the US Dept. of Energy agree that biofuels will yield less than a 20% of total fuel consumption in the long term. A recent University of Minnesota study published by the National Academy of Sciences showed that if every acre of corn were used for ethanol, it would replace only 12.3 percent of the US gasoline consumption. The national Renewable Fuel Standard mandates only 5% of total annual gasoline be displaced by ethanol in 2012.

Given that ethanol yields only 12% less greenhouse gas emissions compared with gasoline, it is clear that use of ethanol will not contribute to significant progress toward meeting the Kyoto Protocol goal of reversing CO2 emissions to 5% below 1990 levels. A 20% decrease in per capita gasoline consumption is far easier and cheaper to achieve using all the other strategies and would result in even less CO2 emissions.

Because of the inherent limitations of biofuels to substitute for fuel imports, this dependence on imported oil will continue to increase until we pursue other strategies including electrifying our transportation system.

Electric transportation provides another powerful argument for significant ramping up of renewable sources such as solar and wind electric generating capacity. This will facilitate the use of these new “portfolio” energy sources for transportation, not just for buildings, lighting, and water pumping. Use of solar and wind-generated electricity for transportation will also reduce the global greenhouse effects attributable to transportation fuels.

The metro region should increase investment in electric and plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles across the board including cars, trucks, conventional buses, trolley buses, express buses, and all forms of rail including streetcars, light rail and heavy rail.

The bottom-line for deciding on funding allocations for all energy strategies should be based on strong environmental and economic analyses. For example, corn-based ethanol is a limited choice because it requires vast quantities of land, water and other agro-inputs/outputs and returns only approximately 1.5 units of energy for every unit invested. On the other hand, wind–generated electricity averages 40 units of energy returned for every invested unit and solar-electric systems produce an average 30 units of energy for every invested unit.

A Challenge to Tucson’s Growth

by Bob Cook
August 3, 2006
Many Tucsonans have forgotten that Pima County experienced zero population growth in 1990. The growth machine stopped as out-migration equaled in-migration due to negative economic factors. We are kidding ourselves if we base all of our “so-called sustainability” plans on the assumption of continued 2% annual growth and not face up to emerging economic trends.

A growing number of serious analysts are forecasting irreversible energy scarcity starting in as few as five years as conventional world oil and natural gas production peaks and then declines. To underscore the gravity of this situation, there are no economic substitutes to mitigate these shortages within the next decade and a half. Under these conditions, Tucson’s population-growth driven economy is certain to contract. Sustaining the existing city will require all of our attention and effort to succeed. While other cities across the country are engaging in Peak Oil planning, we in Tucson haven’t even begun to talk about it.

The model for sustainable planned communities is Tucson Solar Village, later renamed Civano, which many of us worked on 15 years ago. While Civano did not decrease single passenger vehicle trips and miles traveled (which we originally intended) it did include higher performance standards including energy used in buildings and water. These standards are enforced in the City’s permitting process. Any Planned Community District Ordinance should incorporate similar enforceable high performance standards for resource use. Otherwise, we will be perpetuating an unsustainable development pattern that will only add to economic liabilities in the not-so-distant future.

In addition to resource consumption, each house that is built in this city generates a stream of demands for public infrastructure and services lasting many decades and it begins even before the day people first move into the house. We have a horrible record of recovering the public costs of growth — and for proof, just look at all the areas where we are unable to fund standard levels of infrastructure and services.

Why has the City of Tucson still not undertaken the total cost of growth analysis to guide planning and cost recovery as required in the voter-approved General Plan Amendments of 2001?

How are we ever going to cope with public deficiencies in our existing city if the growth machine stops in five years or even less?

While you mull over these questions, I would like to distribute for your consideration the City of Portland’s Peak Oil Resolution adopted this year. Thank you for listening.

Prepared Statement for City of Tucson City Council’s
Environment, Planning, & Resource Management Sub-Committee

Time to discard fifty years of energy myths

by Stewart Udall and Matthew R. Simmons
November 20, 2005

This summer’s hurricanes have triggered the most serious energy emergency in the nation’s history. With gasoline, natural gas and heating oil at near-record highs, many families face the chilly prospect of much higher energy bills in the future. The entire economy is at risk, but airlines, tourism, farmers, small business, seniors and the poor are particularly threatened.
Katrina and Rita ravaged the Gulf of Mexico’s petroleum infrastructure, but a larger, more daunting crisis was already on the horizon.
To craft an intelligent response, we must begin by discarding 50 years of energy myths. Because our continent had huge reserves of oil, coal and natural gas, Americans have nurtured a set of energy illusions that have now come home, in biblical fashion, to haunt us.
The most dangerous myth is that cheap energy is our birthright, that the well would never run dry.
This illusion was born in the early 1950s, when U.S. oil fields provided two-thirds of the planet’s petroleum. Oil was so abundant that domestic producers were required to curtail production to prevent a price collapse. For lack of a market, large plumes of natural gas, now our most precious heating fuel, were flared into the sky.
And atomic energy, the new kid on the block, promised an infinite supply of almost-free electricity. In this euphoric moment, our nation began to fashion a new way of living unlike anything ever seen on the planet.
For a half century, we designed skyscrapers, autos, cities and houses on the assumption that energy would remain inexpensive. In the ’50s, we invented the suburb, the shopping center and the Interstate Highway System. In the ’60s we bought Mustangs. In the ’70s we visited the moon, and in the ’80s we built the world’s most powerful military. Between 1950 and 2005, the country’s population doubled and the economy grew sixfold.
Although advanced technology, superb engineering and Yankee ingenuity played vital roles, it was cheap energy that invented U.S. prosperity. Even at today’s prices, a dime buys enough electricity to lift a pickup truck 500 feet in the air. A gallon of gasoline contains as much energy as that expended riding a bicycle across the United States or hiking 300 miles across Arizona.
Because energy was affordable and abundant, we learned to consume enormous quantities. In recent decades our “burn rate” has been the equivalent of 100 pounds of coal per person-day. Americans now consume their body weight in petroleum products each week.
Energy may be a sliver of gross domestic product – but try running the rest of the economy without it. Energy, not money, is the original currency, the source of all wealth. We share this view even though we come from vastly different backgrounds.
Stewart Udall was elected to Congress more than 50 years ago, and served as secretary of the Interior during a vast expansion of the nation’s wilderness areas. For the last 35 years, Matt Simmons has been one of the world’s leading energy investment bankers, while writing widely on energy trends. One of us is a Democrat, one a Republican, but both of us believe that the nation can no longer afford fanciful, indulgent, “Alice in Wonderland” energy policies that place our economic prosperity and national security at risk.
The coming months will pose an enormous challenge, with the highest heating bills in U.S. history and the prospect of natural gas rationing. It is a time for bold, courageous leadership, but to date the political response can be summarized as “pray for a mild winter.” Although the near-term challenges are dwarfed by those of the coming decade, our leaders continue sleepwalking.
Katrina showed us what happens when you unplug modern energy: Civilization unravels. Because energy is the prerequisite for economic prosperity, social stability and environmental well-being, we must discard the dangerous myths of the past and embrace the momentous challenges of the future.
Here are the key facts:
1 U.S. oil production peaked 35 years ago and no amount of drilling can turn back the clock.
2 Depletion rates in natural gas wells have reached alarming levels.
3 The nation’s energy workforce and infrastructure are aging.
4 No new refineries have been built in 30 years.
5 Our population is increasing by 30 million each decade.
6 Chinese oil demand is surging.
Finally, the cornucopian assumption that the Middle East holds unlimited amounts of oil is false. Approximately three dozen aging fields produce most of that region’s supply. The thesis that the Saudis could open the tap as wide as necessary is appealing but fictitious. As a result, world oil production is likely to peak within the next decade, if not sooner.
In short, the era of cheap energy is over. Where to from here?
More drilling? Of course we will need to do more drilling, if only to stay where we are. But research shows that more than half the energy used in this country is lost in inefficient power plants, buildings and cars.
Efficiency must be the rallying call. Conservation is, well, conservative, the single most patriotic thing we can do. Longer term, we’ve got to acquire more accurate information about the true state of the world’s aging oil fields, reorganize our work patterns, modernize our shipping and transportation systems, refurbish our aging energy infrastructure, weatherize tens of millions of buildings, and exponentially expand the production of domestic biofuels, wind and solar power, while replacing 225 million automobiles and light trucks with far more efficient vehicles. This scope of work is not optional: It is an urgent matter of national preservation.
If we ignore the current crisis or misread its message, the world as we know it is likely to become a far darker place for our children.

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Ethanol Can’t Erase Foreign Dependence On Oil

By H. Josef Hebert
The Associated Press
July 11, 2006

WASHINGTON — Ethanol is far from a cure-all for the nation’s energy problems. It’s not as environmentally friendly as some supporters claim and would supply only 12 percent of U.S. motoring fuel — even if every acre of corn were used.
A number of researchers, the latest in a report Monday, are warning about exaggerated expectations that ethanol could dramatically change America’s dependence on foreign oil by shifting motorists away from gasoline.
As far as alternative fuels are concerned, biodiesel from soybeans is the better choice compared with corn-produced ethanol, University of Minnesota researchers concluded in an analysis.
But “neither can replace much petroleum without impacting food supplies,” the researchers concluded in the paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Wouldn’t replace gasoline
The paper said development of nonfood materials such as switchgrass, prairie grasses and woody plants to produce cellulosic ethanol would be a major improvement with greater energy output and lower environmental impacts.
But creation of cellulosic ethanol remains in the laboratory research stage. And even nonfood sources of ethanol would fall far short of replacing gasoline, most researchers agree.
Biofuels such as ethanol are “not a practical long-term solution,” and their widespread use — even from nonfood crop sources — could have a “devastating” impact on agriculture, two researchers at the Magleve Research Center of the Polytechnic University of New York, argued recently.
“Ethanol from 300 million acres of switchgrass still could not supply our present gasoline and diesel consumption, which is projected to double by 2025,” the researchers, James Jordan and James Powell, wrote in an op-ed article in the Washington Post. “The agricultural effects of such a large-scale program would be devastating.”
In addition to a reduction in soil fertility by not plowing wastes back into the ground, there is concern that using corn and soybeans for ethanol would create competition for food crops.
But Geoff Cooper, a spokes-man for the National Corn Growers Association, calls suggestions that the growth of ethanol will jeopardize food supplies “fear mongering.”
“There’s absolutely no shortage of corn,” Cooper said. He said demand for corn for livestock feed has been flat and that increased production and expected higher yields per acre will provide plenty of corn to meet all needs.
In a frenzy to respond to public outcries about high gasoline and crude oil prices, members of Congress, as well as the Bush administration, have embraced ethanol as the alternative to gasoline to help move the country closer to energy independence.
Ethanol, virtually all of it made from corn in this country, also has been touted as the “green” alternative motor fuel with a push to make it more widely available, not only as a 10 percent additive but with an 85 percent blend with gasoline.
“We definitely believe that biofuels (such as ethanol) have a significant potential,” said Jason Hill, lead author of the University of Minnesota study. But he added that ethanol should not be viewed as “a savior” to our energy problems, and its rapid expansion as a motor fuel has its drawbacks, especially if it is dependent on food crops such as corn and soybeans as feedstock.
Major environmental impacts
If every acre of corn were used for ethanol, it would replace only 12.3 percent of the gasoline used in this country, Hill’s study said, adding that the energy gains of corn-produced ethanol are only modest and the environmental impacts significant.
As a motor fuel, ethanol from corn produces a modest 25 percent more energy than is consumed — including from fossil fuels — in growing the corn, converting it into ethanol and shipping it for use in gasoline.
While often touted as a “green” environmentally friendly fuel, corn-based ethanol’s life cycle environmental impacts are mixed as best, the researchers said.
Compared with gasoline, it produces 12 percent less “greenhouse” gases linked to global warming, according to the study. But the researchers also said it has environmental drawbacks, including “markedly greater” releases of nitrogen, phosphorous and pesticides into waterways as runoff from corn fields.

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Our most neglected problem—global warming

Our most neglected problem—global warming
by Stewart L. Udall

November 19, 2006

“We are all riders on the Earth together.”
— Archibald MacLeish (1969)

The aftermath of a discordant election is a good time to focus on our biggest, most neglected problem — global warming.
Two powerful energy trends are converging to define the parameters of a changing world. The first involves the approaching peak of world oil production and the impacts it will have on the lives of people everywhere.
The second relates to the warming of the atmosphere by the incessant combustion of coal, oil and natural gas. The burning of those finite fossil fuels is producing carbon that is damaging the climates of all continents.
For more than a decade the world has been waiting for our nation to step forward and help organize a wholistic strategy to deal with this issue.
There is no dispute about the central facts. The United States, by itself, is burning fossil fuels that emit 25 percent of the heat-trapping carbon that is altering climates. It is also beyond dispute that the problem is truly global and will take unprecedented global cooperation to solve.
A good place to start a national dialogue about controlling the carbon buildup is to look at emissions of U.S. coal plants. To date leaders in Washington have excused inaction by arguing that any campaign to curb carbon would be so costly that it would “wreck” America’s economy and plunge the world into another Great Depression.
This is a weird argument for any informed American to make. U.S. prowess as the world leader in perfecting pollution-control technologies is legendary. Since the struggle to check urban smog 50 years ago, American specialists have repeatedly confounded their critics by quickly devising solutions that were surprisingly cheap. A can-do spirit (remember the Manhattan Project and the space program?) has long expressed American optimism when “impossible” ideas were proposed.
Today scientists are telling Americans that technologies already exist to sequester carbon before it is released into the air. Capturing the carbon at the site of coal plants and transporting it to safe depositories would be another triumph for those experts. Moreover, the logical region to carry out this work is the American West. For more than a century, in states such as Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, petroleum companies created huge geological caverns where carbon can be safely stored.
Any positive technological initiative by the United States would surely stir excitement and hope. But bold, robust leadership must come from the wealthy nations that have created the problem. I present, herewith, one concept that might provoke serious thought.
A Concept for Planetary Action:
I ask you to envision what might be done if the world’s richest countries created a research and development entity to serve the energy needs of the whole world.
Imagine that the 20 most advanced nations — whose energy programs put three-fourths of the carbon into the atmosphere — formed a consortium to develop solutions to future energy problems. If these countries pooled their financial resources on an equitable basis, they could create a powerhouse that could change the course of history.
Assume, for example, that those countries agreed that each member nation would initially contribute to the annual budget in proportion to the heat-trapping carbon it released into the atmosphere the previous year. Such a sharing would vouchsafe budgets needed to grapple with the most urgent energy problems.
Such an entity could assemble teams of superlative scientists, engineers and design specialists.
Any such effort would obviously flounder unless China (which recently passed the United States as the leading producer of coal carbon) were a full-fledged partner.
There are compelling reasons to anticipate that China would eagerly join such a consortium. As the home of the world’s fastest growing economy and the locale of some of the most polluted cities in the world, self-interest would dictate participation.
Author Thomas L. Friedman, whose columns frequently appear in the Star, recently reminded that for two decades China has graduated more scientists and engineers than any other country. This could be a huge reservoir of brainpower to help build a new and better world.
Humankind is at an energy crossroad. The world’s road right now involves fierce competition, potential shortages, high prices, frantic searches for undiscovered petroleum and growing environmental disasters. The new path, envisioned by energy planners, features vigorous international cooperation, bold technological advances, sharing, rapid development of renewable resources, and environmental stability.

Stewart L. Udall was elected four times to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat in District 2 and was the first Arizonan named to a Cabinet position. His 1963 book “The Quiet Crisis,”a history of the attitudes and practices of conservationist movement in America, was an impetus for present environmentalism. His brother, Rep. Morris K. Udall, represented Tucson in Congress for 30 years.

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