Fri Jul 7th, 2006 at 06:09:46 AM EST
There seems to be quite a battle rolling at the moment, in the media and on Internet, about energy. So what's new, you ask (because you're perceptive, proof of which is you're reading European Tribune /end of base flattery + ad for this blog).
What's new, overall, is an apparent shift in emphasis, a new frankness, in the message put out by our "leaders" - see this entry in yesterday's European Breakfast on the G8 summit's sidelining of global warming in favour of "we need energy". What's new too is the high polemical level developed in generally more circumspect publications like the Financial Times - see Jérôme's The FT's Martin Wolf does not believe in peak oil for a forthright denial of any coming energy problems.
What's also new is an uptick in the polemic that surrounds biofuels. Well, big deal (say you, perceptive reader), biofuels contribute no more than a tiny percentage of energy supply. Yes, but they're liquid fuels, and that may be part of what the fighting is about.
Follow me beneath the fold for more.
Among renewable sources of energy, biofuels seem to spark the most controversy. Solar or tidal energy don't attract too much adverse criticism, windfarms are attacked for supposed noise, unsightliness, and bird-kill issues, but the overall image of these renewables remains positive. Comparatively, biofuels are a slugging-match topic. Advocates and enemies make hugely contrasting claims. Opponents offer particularly scathing and disqualifying scrutiny.
Biofuels are liquid fuels; they can be (and are) used to run motor vehicles in conjunction with or replacement of, petroleum-based liquid fuels. You don't have to think for long before wondering if, behind the polemics, there isn't a fight for market share between the agri-industry and the petroleum industry. And there are elements that support that view. Both the US and the EU (pioneers, with Brazil, in biofuel production) are moving into a phase of increasing the share of biofuels mixed into petro-fuels, and, more importantly, making a higher percentage mandatory. That has the effect of increasing demand for and the price of crops used as feedstock (maize (corn) in the US, particularly), or of allowing a switch of production from subsidized export (aka dumping on world markets, on which the US and EU will have to give some ground in the course of the Doha Round negotiations at the WTO) to subsidized energy (sugar beet springs to mind in the EU).
The automobile industry is highly unlikely to be neutral either. Without changing current engineering and marketing practices by much (and therefore without feeding in investment), it can allow biofuels to give it a green 'n' clean image, while claiming for itself a (very slight) reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. No need to go the fuel reduction route and have to change marketing strategy and production lines, biofuels will be the miracle fix.
The agri-lobby and the car industry lobby are powerful ones in both the US and the EU. But the oil industry shows every sign of gearing up to defend its profits. The Martin Wolf article referred to above, a total denial of Peak Oil in an extremely serious and respected newspaper, seems like a bugle call. The notion of Peak Oil may not be fully understood by everyone, but the idea that oil will not last for ever and will increase in price has now penetrated mass consciousness. The oil industry, like the tobacco industry with the dangers of smoking, seems ready to fight any dip in demand for its products by practising denial. (Everything's OK, just keep on filling up the tank). And, in the case of biofuels, by slandering the competition?
Well, the FT also recently published a big whack over the head for biofuels ( Biofuels could be a huge waste of taxpayer money). So did the Washington Post: The False Hope of Biofuels: For Energy and Environmental Reasons, Ethanol Will Never Replace Gasoline.
Is this just biofuel-bashing, or does it have any justification? Neutral information is not easy to find. Ballpark (but dependable) numbers from which to make a few calculations are not easy to find either. In Part Two of this diary, I'll try to set out what answers I think (I hope) I have found.
(This should also be considered part of our attempt to get together a common position for the European Commission Consultation on Biofuels. See:
Biofuels Consultation (Part I) Is the objective of promoting biofuels valid?
ETWiki Biofuel Consultation page.
We need input. Please provide any you think would help.)
Update [2006-7-8 6:1:55 by afew]: I have added a paragraph on the automobile industry. Why should we leave them out?