Transporting ethanol is risky business
This is the fifth blogpost in the series, “Corn-Fed Cars: On the Road with Ethanol.”
Discussions about the environmental impacts of corn ethanol often come around to the inputs and outputs associated with growing the corn and processing it into a fuel. In fact, in this series’ third post, “Does Ethanol Pollute the Environment… Or Does Corn?,” we tackled this topic.
Understanding the environmental impact of growing the corn and producing the ethanol fuel is obviously very important—but it is not the only critical piece of an exceedingly complex puzzle. Another important component of the ethanol supply chain is the so-called distribution infrastructure. In other words: What happens after the corn is grown, transported to the production facility and processed into ethanol? How does it get from the plant to your gas tank, and what are the possible environmental and health concerns along the way? Read More >
Alternate fossil energy sources pose their own hazards
This is the fourth blogpost in the series, “Corn-Fed Cars: On the Road with Ethanol.”
While ethanol is the main subject of our blog series, we want to take a look at other so-called alternative energy sources that have been finding their way into the news lately. Shale gas, oil shales, and tar sands are actually not new—they have been long known, but little exploited. Rising oil prices are making us take another look at them.
Some people are saying this era is the end of “peak easy oil.” While new technologies have lowered costs of production and processing, it is only a matter of time until we are in “peak difficult oil.” Read More >
Local market, fresh vegetables
The global food system has become largely dependent on a finite supply of oil. Rates of crude extraction are projected to decline in the immediate future, accompanied by a rise in oil prices. Judging from recent oil price hikes, higher food prices are likely to follow closely behind. As a result, populations afflicted by hunger may face a particularly sobering transition to a food system divorced, at least in part, from what has become an almost inextricable bond with oil.
In every potential crisis lies opportunity. In our efforts to prepare for a post-peak oil food system, what measures can be taken to uplift and protect the world’s most vulnerable? Among several other key recommendations, expanding the capacity of local and regional food systems may build resiliency against rising food prices, more expensive agricultural inputs and other shocks related to oil scarcity. By providing greater economic opportunities to the most affected populations, building support around local farmers in developing regions may also help to alleviate hunger. Read More >
Which is the culprit? Ethanol or corn?
This is the third blogpost in the series, “Corn-Fed Cars: On the Road with Ethanol.”
When environmentalists complain about ethanol, they complain about the negative impacts of an ethanol economy: increased levels of nitrate, sediment and pesticide pollution, as well as decreased biodiversity and fewer small farms. Are these valid complaints? Or are they actually complaining about corn? Are we talking about “failed agronomy?”
First, some facts. The amount of land dedicated to corn today is at an all-time high. And so is the land in soybeans. The reason is clear: corn and soybeans are at all-time high prices and returns. The USDA is putting less emphasis on conservation reserve programs, and so farmers with their eyes on the bottom line are putting more land into corn and soybeans. Read More >
Organopónicos provide much of the food in Cuba
Peak oil is fast approaching, a reality that is widely recognized by many scientific communities and governmental bodies. Many estimate that oil will peak by 2030, if it has not already. When this occurs, oil supplies will begin to decline, making it harder and more expensive to extract every drop. Our food system as it stands today is not prepared to gracefully withstand that decline.
As Roni Neff and colleagues illustrate in their article “Peak Oil, Food Systems, and Public Health,” recently published in the American Journal of Public Health as part of a supplement addressing peak petroleum, our globalized industrial food system relies heavily on oil at every step. Pesticides and herbicides are petroleum products. Farm machinery is manufactured with and runs on petroleum as an energy source. And transporting food extraordinary distances is only possible because of the oil that powers planes, ships and trucks. A large shock in oil prices would have an enormous impact on the current food system. Read More >
It’s possible that we may all be ready to talk about peak oil now—especially if we frame it in terms of public health.
A recently published study on the public’s perception of peak oil has turned up some very interesting data about how Americans view the impact of high oil prices on public health. What’s so fascinating about the data is this: it’s not just those on the left who are worried. In fact, those most concerned about the health consequences of rising oil prices seem to be, in equal numbers, those on both the far right and far left of the political spectrum. Read More >
Model Ts were "flex-fuel" and some could run on ethanol.
This second blogpost in the series, “Corn-Fed Cars: On the Road with Ethanol,” continues the conversation about ethanol and explores the forces that converged to get us to this critical—and contentious—moment in biofuels history.
Since 1826, when it was first used to power internal combustion engines (ethanol timeline), ethanol has been of interest to entrepreneurs and agriculturists as a possible alternate fuel. As early as 1862, it was heavily taxed to pay for the Civil War. In 1908, Henry Ford produced the flex-fuel Model T, although by then cheap oil took over the powering of the nation and ethanol languished.
Fast-forward to 1974, when Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), the main producer of high fructose corn syrup, found itself in a quandary. The wet milling process used to manufacture corn syrup from corn grain created, in excess, a by-product known as ethanol, and ADM launched a shrewd search to find or create a market for it. (See this paper on the “Ethanol Swindle.”) Capitalizing on the “Project Independence” initiative started by the Nixon administration to reach total independence from foreign energy sources, ADM began a political campaign promoting ethanol as an additive to gasoline—and the current ethanol industry was born. (Read this paper for more on the history.) Read More >
Last Wednesday while executives from the Marcellus Shale Coalition met inside the Philadelphia Convention Center, I joined several hundred activists outside to rally against high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, aka “fracking.” This relatively new natural-gas extraction process is at the center of a growing tension: the urgency to discover new, “unconventional” fuel sources to replace diminishing conventional fossil fuel supplies, and the process required to adequately assess potential environmental and human health risks before embracing new energy sources.
In some communities where fracking is underway, alarm has been raised because fracking has been implicated in public health risks, tainting drinking water supplies and more recently even poisoning animals raised for food. (This chart explains fracking’s potential impacts on agriculture.) Read More >
Stocking up for Irene
Ten days ago, I, like everyone else, joined the throngs streaming into the parking lot of the local Giant in a last ditch effort to stock the shelves at home in anticipation of up to a week with no water or electricity. Despite the expectation of extended power outages, we were planning to stock our refrigerators with food in the hope that the power will be back on within a day or two, or with the intention to run one of the small gas-powered generators that fly off the shelves of local hardware stores in the aftermath of the storm. Compared to some, like citizens of Chester, Vermont, located in one of several counties where FEMA has been called in to provide assistance to individuals and families whose homes were severely damaged by flooding, we were lucky. We only lost power for a few days.
As I made my way through the store, no bottled water or bread remained on the shelves. I purchased a gallon of milk, knowing my two young children would polish it off before it went bad. As I stood in the alarmingly bare aisles, I wracked my brain for ideas, items no one else may have considered buying that didn’t require refrigeration or water to prepare. But, as they say, where there is a will there is a way. Read More >
Last month I watched in amazement as a small but inflammatory political faction forced its agenda on the American people—and got results. The debt-ceiling advocates bullied the issue into Congress using two powerful tools—threats and a deadline.
Our food system depends on petroleum
Standing in line at the Giant last Friday, I reflected on our collective ability to mobilize for deadlines. “This is not a storm to be taken lightly,” said Governor O’Malley to Marylanders, and we didn’t. We loaded up coolers of ice and refrigerators full of food, double-staked the tomatoes, charged the electronics, filled bathtubs with water, even put away patio furniture in case it might fly into the air and smash our windows. “I just scored the last eight D batteries in Baltimore!,” crowed a friend on Facebook. Read More >