Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Propaganda Hits Just Keep Coming

(Author's note: For more information about this, see this entry.)

They're at it again, folks, this time in the person of David Olive, writing in the Toronto Star.

The article has a particularly damning quote from Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the chairman of Nestle, saying that "Biofuels are economical nonsense, ecologically useless and ethically indefensible." Brabeck-Lemathe is certainly extreme in his right-wing views, espousing the common corporatist notion that water should not be a human right, for example. (If it is classed under trade agreements as a "human need," instead of a "human right," it can be bought and sold for profit regardless of local demand. Coming from the chairman of Nestle, there's no conflict of interest there, nope nope.) Interestingly, Brabeck-Lemathe also sits on the European Round Table of Industrialists, along with representatives from companies like MOL Hungarian Oil and Gas Company, Volvo, Volkswagen, the General Motors subsidiary Renault, tire manufacturer Pirelli, and oil companies Royal Dutch Shell and BP.

In the article, we also get some statistics (unsourced) about the amount of corn being diverted to corn-based ethanol: "America's vastly expanded network of ethanol plants now consumes between one-quarter and 30 per cent of U.S. corn production, up from 10 per cent in 2002." While 25-30% sounds like an awful lot, that represents only a 20-25% increase in six years.

There also seems to be this unstated assumption that because an increasing percentage of American corn crops are being diverted to biofuels, this is somehow causing the entire rest of the world to go hungry. Again, there is no mention of the Ug99 grain rust, increasing problems with insect pests in Asia and the Middle East, and drought in Africa, and climate-change induced drought (in Africa) and flooding (in the United States). Note to Americans: You are not the centre of the universe, let alone the world, and most areas manage to feed themselves relatively well without your help.

Besides that, the piece is entirely devoted to conflating biofuels with corn ethanol. As I've mentioned before, their entire strawman argument seems to be "Corn ethanol sucks. All biofuels are corn ethanol. Therefore all biofuels suck."

Let's look at that for a moment. Well, yes, I agree that corn ethanol sucks. (At this point, after years of malfeasance by the Bush Administration, and knowing how oil-connected they are, I'd be instinctively skeptical of any biofuel proposals they backed, because they'd pretty much have to be a Potemkin tactic to discredit everything else.)

You'll get absolutely no argument from me about how badly corn ethanol sucks. In fact, if I were going to write a How Not To... article on biofuels, I'd talk about making it from high-maintenance monoculture crops that require lots of energy investment, chemicals, fertiliser, and special machinery; that take up land that could be used productively for other purposes, and divert resources into a biofuels boondoggle. In other words, I'd be writing about why you shouldn't make biofuels out of corn.

The article never mentions that there are lots of other sources of biofuels, such as:

While we're on the subject, do you remember when anyone who was anyone who was talking about biofuels was talking about running their car off of throwaway McDonald's grease? "It'll make car exhaust smell like french fries!", everyone said. Funny how now that the disinformation has pupated and emerged from its scrofulous corporate chrysalis as the death's head moth it is, everyone's sort of forgotten about running your car out of the contents of Mickey D's dumpsters... I guess it's more fun to believe the Dirty Fuckin' Hippies of the world are causing your bread prices to triple.

Also, scientists at the University of Texas at Austin have genetically engineered a microbe that excretes sugars and cellulosic ethanol for biofuels.

There are also ways of making biofuels from a bunch of really weird stuff like old credit card statements and pizza boxes. (Now, if I could make biofuels out of bills, I'd be all set.)

In other words, this whole essay has been a very, very long-winded way of saying that the article is a total smear job from headline to dingbat. Apparently the corporate shills have got their marching orders, and that's to prevent us from even exploring any alternatives to oil until it's vastly too late. By that point, one suspects, the oil companies and their executives will have either discovered that money's irrelevant if the earth has turned into Venus 2.0, or else, more probably, they'll have their companies all lined up with all the technology in place to arm-twist us into using whatever they deem necessary at whatever price they dictate. That would make the modern robber barons pretty happy. The rest of us, not so much.


Anonymous Mike said...

I disagree with a lot of what I have read on your blog. I have agree that biofuels have gotten unfair treatment in the news though.

I was involved in a project to design a portable biomass gassifier a few years ago.

The logic behind the portability is that very often, the agricultural waste that can be used to generate biodiesel and other "biofuel" products cannot be economically collected and transported to processing centers.

Everyone on the team considered it to be a foregone conclusion that biofuel production only makes sense if the input is waste to begin with.

I was really confounded when I saw all these initiatives to start using perfectly good crop land to produce perfectly good food, just to ferment it into something we can burn in place of petroleum fuels. The economics of this should have been a red flag regarding the "greenness" of this process.

It makes even less sense to use a high cellulose crop like corn. Things like the first 4 items on your list which have high cellulose contents, don't readily process into useful forms. The cellulose acts as a protection against most of the chemistry which takes place in a bioreactor and has to be stripped away somehow.

There are reliable mechanical methods of doing this, and on the bleeding edge (as of the time of our project) there was a genetically engineered microbe which was actually able to break down cellulose into useful forms.

I think this might the same UTA microbe you referenced in your post.

In anycase, as an economic right winger, I will continue to damn DFH bureaucrats for pushing the biofuel subsidies.

If doing something without subsidy creates a financial loss, it is very likely that it also creates an energetic loss.

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