He made these comments in the belly of the beast at an Agriculture Department’s Agricultural Outlook Forum where they were not well received.
However, he’s absolutely right. Corn for ethanol makes less corn available for consumption, and that drives up the price. Plus, corn is in everything. Corn ethanol was a cynical ploy started by George Bush to keep mid-west agribusiness happy. Obama has continued it. Making ethanol from corn is hugely inefficient, costly, and has obvious negative side effects. We should stop doing it and concentrate on biofuel from cellulosic leftovers and waste, plus biofuel from algae. That’s where the future of biofuel is.
I am a cellulosic biofuels proponent who supports corn ethanol.
In my opinion, Clinton has it backwards. Is the price of corn affected by spikes in the price of oil, or is oil affected by the price of corn? Obviously the former. Do we need another oil spill, price spike, economic recession, and war to learn the lesson? Here are five things to consider:
First off, ethanol, regardless of how it’s made, is a necessary product in the U.S. because it is used as an oxygenate in gasoline – so if you drive in the U.S., you are probably driving on some blend of ethanol. That’s about a billion gallons / year in California alone.
Secondly, food availability is a complicated problem in most parts of the world. It is affected not only by how much food is grown, but where it grown and how it is transported. If the price of oil goes up, ALL food and other commodities go up with it. Not to mention that with no choices at the pump food cultivation goes up with the price of oil.
Third, the U.S. is sitting on corn growing capacity and ethanol production capacity. We could grow far more than we do and we export our excess (including corn) to foreign countries. The problem is that our grains are so cheap (even with transoceanic transport) that indigenous markets in poor countries fail to develop – meaning there is no way that farmers there can compete. That is also compounded by the price of oil. Developing technology to make fuel production regional will enable poorer countries to break the crippling link to worldwide oil prices – as Brazil has so ably proven.
Fourth, corn ethanol is enabling the U.S. to develop an infrastructure for 2nd generation biofuels – more choices at the pump for fuels that are getting cheaper and cleaner while oil is getting dirtier and much more expensive. We cannot get to 2nd generation biofuels without a strong infrastructure and markets to move and sell it as it becomes available.
Fifth, we have more flexible fuel cars on the road now because of the prospect of ethanol. There are too few blender pumps available otherwise more people would choose to buy higher ethanol blends (E15-E85) instead of supporting the obscene oil prices that sends U.S. wealth out of the country. If I have to pay obscene prices, let it be to domestic producers of the alternative fuels so at least I am not compounding the addiction to foreign oil.
Ford built the Model T to run on ethanol. Dr. Diesel invented the diesel engine with the idea that it would run on peanut oil from America. That is just to say that technology evolves, and while ethanol is a great transitional step in “greening” up the profile of America’s (and the world’s) fuel use, we can also expect to see it evolve into something different.
The same ingredients and equipment could be making biobutanol (with only a minor adaptation of the equipment, and a change in the fermenting microbes) which is a “drop in” replacement for gasoline but comes from organic sources. It also has higher energy content per volume than ethanol, much closer to gasoline.
We also already have several technologies that can turn the carbon in almost any biomass into your choice of diesel, jet fuel, or gasoline, but we don’t have hundreds of those facilities sitting around so the fact that we have ethanol plants suggests that they are a good base from which to make some more significant advances. The politics of it won’t leave the voters (farmers) of the midwest high and dry, nor the BigAg processors, neither. Ethanol will likely have a role to play for a long time, but it is not the replacement fuel of the future, but rather an ingredient for the success in transitions and evolutions to better fueling solutions.
Stafford “Doc” Williamson