Instead of a Sportscar...

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Can Ethanol Replace Oil?

My article “The Problem with Oil” took a look at the nation’s oil balance sheet and illustrated the scope of the problem America is faced with. America imports over half of the crude it uses, the vast majority of which goes to fueling our cars, heating our homes, and keeping our airplanes aloft. Currently, there is an automotive fuel that is relatively renewable, fairly clean, and producible domestically: E85—a blend of 85% ethanol (yes, the stuff of moonshine) with 15% gasoline.

For a variety of reasons, not just any engine can run on E85. Some automobiles are currently sold as “Flexible Fuel Vehicles” that can run on E85, and theoretically any gasoline engine can be converted to run on it; however in reality, conversions can’t be done because there aren’t any EPA certified aftermarket conversion kits. So a conversion is currently illegal, as no aftermarket parts companies want to take the time and expense to get EPA certified. This is a purely legislative hurtle that could be solved in two easy steps: easing the EPA certification process, and setting a target date where all new cars that are sold must be flex-fuel compatible.

I make three key assumptions in this article: that we Americans won’t drive less in the near future, we cannot convert infrastructure for technology that does not exist, and we cannot divert our current agricultural output from present uses to new ones—we can only seek to increase output (in other words, we can’t stop producing food in our quest to produce fuel).

Ethanol is produced from the starches in grains. Ethanol production is well understood and has been with us since before the internal combustion engine—for as long as people have felt the need for a cocktail, they have known how to produce grain alcohols. Currently, the best crop for producing ethanol that can be grown domestically is corn (the ideal crop would be sugarcane, but America’s climate is wrong for it). The question remains: can we grow enough corn to largely replace gasoline?

According to the Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), the approximate total land area of the United States is 2,345,697,640 acres, of which roughly 41.4% is farms. Slightly over half of that land is pastureland or some other non-growing land, with the rest used for a variety of crops—although only about two thirds of that cropland is actively harvested in any given year.

In 2002 (the date of the last NASS atlas), there were 68,230,523 acres of corn harvested for grain. When corn is harvested, it is generally shelled and put into bushels weighing approximately 56 pounds each. The average yield in 2002—a relatively average year—was 129.3 bushels per acre, which converts to roughly 3.28 metric tons of shelled corn per acre.

Depending on the refining process and the quality of the crude, a 42 gallon barrel of crude can yield approximately 19.5 gallons of gasoline and other petroleum products. A metric ton of shelled corn can provide 110 gallons of ethanol—ethanol which can be blended with the gasoline from a single barrel of crude to make about 130 gallons of E85.

Here’s the bad news: America would need 340,936,640 additional acres of corn cultivated to replace all of the US imports of oil—acreage greater than the area cultivated for all crops in any given year. Keeping with the assumption that America cannot divert current crops to large-scale fuel production, we would be faced with having to more than double the amount of land that is currently cultivated. Yet there is a limit to how much land is available for cultivation: cities take up a significant amount of land, national parks take up yet more land, and a great deal of land is simply unsuitable for cultivation of any crop. The cold reality is that we likely cannot dedicate enough land to completely convert to E85.

So is there no point in discussing E85? That’s not necessarily true: America has a refining shortfall of some 3,035,000 barrels per day—requiring us to purchase refined products internationally. With a mere 50,787,411 additional acres of corn we could replace our need to purchase refined products internationally without building any new refineries.

America needs to face up to its oil addiction, and sooner is much better that later. For the foreseeable future there is no single fix for the problem. Yet E85 derived from corn could help to be a stop-gap measure as America begins to wean itself off of oil, and it’s something that can be started on immediately. The technology exists, what is needed is the political and corporate leadership.


Sources of information:
Corn to ethanol conversion data.
Information about E85.
Agricultural statistics.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Iraq War, a Just War

NOTE: the following is the result of an assignment I had for one of my politics classes at university. It fairly well sums up a lot of what I've had to say before about the Iraq war by applying the "Just War Doctrine" to the decision to go to war in the first place. It's rather long--you've been warned.

The invasion of Iraq was clearly justified by the Just War Doctrine. The just war doctrine has the following conditions: intervention in another state can occur only to halt injustice, all peaceful means of conflict resolution must have been exhausted prior to war, force can only be used by a legitimate government, the goal of war must be to establish a just peace, there must be a reasonable chance of success, and the war must be fought in a just manner. All of these conditions can be easily shown to be true.

Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath regime was clearly a fundamentally unjust one and the only way to establish just conditions for the ordinary Iraqi citizens was through a change of regimes. Hussein was never elected in a free and fair election, and his rule was based primarily on force varnished over by electoral fraud. Over the years, the Ba'ath regime used threats, torture, rape, and murder as instruments of state control. The Ba'ath regime also committed genocides against the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs. Saddam Hussein's obstruction of the UN weapons inspectors for over a decade ensured that the sanctions regime that was in place after his illegal invasion of Kuwait would not end—in fact, his manipulation of aide programs meant to help ordinary Iraqis in the face of these sanctions for political ends likely contributed to the deaths of thousands of Iraqis. Furthermore, Saddam Hussein embezzled billions from the "oil for food" program and used it for personal aggrandizement and to buy influence around the world—all at the expense of the Iraqi people.

The US and UN had serious and longstanding grievances against Saddam Hussein's regime which would likely never be completely ameliorated while Saddam Hussein or his likely successors were in power. His decade long obstruction and outright denial of UN weapons inspections were enough to trigger the use of force by the terms of the Gulf War cease-fire and subsequent UN mandates. Up until the last moments before the invasion the UN had not declared him in full compliance with the very clear obligations set out in those mandates. The actual existence or not of the weapons is irrelevant, what matters is he did not comply with the process and it was reasonable to believe that he had proscribed weapons. What's more, subsequent reports have stated that Hussein maintained the ambition, knowledge, and infrastructure to reconstitute a WMD program—which left the world with an interesting quandary: had the inspections ever been left unobstructed by Hussein before the war and had he been declared weapons-free, the sanctions likely would have ended and he would have been free and able to develop the weapons he desired. WMD were not the sole grievance that the US had against Saddam Hussein, however. There was also the issue of his clear and well-documented support for terror groups and individual terrorists. Since terrorism is a threat to the US and its allies and Hussein clearly viewed terrorism as a legitimate arm of his foreign policy, and additionally considering the recalcitrant and dishonest nature of Hussein and his regime, it seems unlikely at best we could have ever had confidence that he would forswear terrorism as a tool of state completely.

There is no question that the US government is a legitimate government. The argument that President Bush didn't win the 2000 election is a rather facile one—in a democracy such as our the electoral process is less than perfect, and from time to time there have been imperfect and highly contentious elections. Despite these imperfect elections, new presidential elections are held every 4 years and there is either a confirmation of the sitting President or a peaceful transition of power. It is through this very process and the institutions that support it that even an imperfectly elected President has legitimacy.

The invasion was a pre-requisite for a just peace. Firstly, the invasion of Iraq had the effect of ameliorating the legitimate grievances that the US and UN had with Saddam Hussein's recalcitrant regime. Furthermore, under current Iraqi law, foreigners (to include companies) cannot own oil fields; Iraqis are selling their oil on the open market—facts that debunk the theory that it was a war for economic gain or to "steal" Iraqi oil. Lastly, the invasion set the conditions for Iraqis to take charge of their own destinies and have a government that drew its sovereignty from the consent of the people.

There was little question about the success of an invasion. There was little Iraqi air force to speak of, and what did exist was largely out-dated and lacking in maintenance due to the spare parts shortage caused by the sanctions that were in place. We had proved the Iraqi air defense/anti-aircraft capability ineffective against more than a decade of no-fly zones, despite Iraqi efforts to the contrary. These two facts taken together gave us complete control of the skies and a massive tactical air-support advantage. The Iraqi army was similarly degraded from the shortages caused by sanctions, and had proved ineffective against the US Army before. Any standing concentration of Iraqi troops was easy prey for air and artillery strikes—the Iraqi's own artillery was highly vulnerable to US counter-battery fire. In the first Gulf War even the much-ballyhooed Iraqi Republican Guard dreaded our artillery fire, calling it "steel rain". Iraqi armor was outdated and outclassed by US armor. The average Iraqi infantry were under trained conscripts. All of these facts taken together meant that there was absolutely no way that the Iraq army could hold out for very long against a full-on assault by American forces using combined Air-Land tactics.

The war has been fought in accordance with the principle of jus in bello. While it's true that in warfare there is bound to be collateral damage, it's also true that intent matters; the American armed forces go to extraordinary lengths to avoid civilian casualties. While it's also true that there have been incidents of abuse by US service members, those incidents have come to light and been prosecuted; America polices its own.

The US took a great deal of time and effort to ensure that its actions met the conditions of a just war before the invasion took place. The decision to go to war was an eminently just and moral decision that ended an unjust and immoral dictatorial regime, and is setting the preconditions for a new order in the Middle East by helping the Iraqis to establish a just society based on rule by a more legitimate form of sovereign government.

Arizona to Deploy Guard Troops to Border?

Fox News is reporting that Arizona is considering deploying national guard troops to the border with Mexico. I've posted before my feelings about border security, so anyone who has followed my posts in the past won't be surprised to find that I am fully in favor of this move.

I already know the knee-jerk criticisms of my support for a policy such as this:

"You're advocating an anti-immigrant, policy...you're a racist!" --Nothing could be further from the truth. I'm married to a legal asian immigrant. A desire for legal immigration isn't racist.

"It won't stop illegal immigration, people will still want to come." --Probably can't cure a cancer, so why go to the doctor? The house is going to burn, so why call the fire department? Crime is going to happen, so why hire police? Defeatist thinking helps nobody. What we can hope such a move will do is to put a serious dent into the flow of immigrants entering illegally.

Illegal immigration affects us all, it takes jobs out of the market and taxes out of the coffers. It denigrates the laws of our land and threatens our national security. We need immigration--but of the legal sort.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

NH Drinking Age Bill Defeated

Some time ago I reported that a NH legislator planned to introduce a bill that would lower the drinking age to 18 for members of the armed forces. Well, it seems that the bill has been rather roundly defeated in committee. Oddly enough, the bill was sponsored by the same Representative who sponsored the bill that raised the drinking age to 21 in the first place.

In light of the CDC’s 2003 survey that reported nearly 45% of all high-schoolers had drunk alcohol at least once in the previous 30 days, perhaps something needs to change. We ought to demystify alcohol by educating young people and cultivating a culture of responsibility.