Sunday, April 22, 2007

Happy Earth Day!

Have you celebrated Earth Day yet?

No? Why not?

Perhaps you are like me: you don’t buy into the hysteria of man-made global warming and of impending doom if we don’t devolve our energy-extravagant lifestyle real soon. Actually, I’m not as much of a cretin as some might believe where the environment is concerned. At one point in my younger days I was quite the environmentalist, opposing hydroelectric power and highway projects and such. I even got the evil eye from the security detail of then-Governor of West Virginia Arch Moore, when at a news conference I pressed the governor farther than he wanted on points of what at the time I perceived as environmentally dangerous policies and plans. The event ended well: the governor finished the press conference and headed back to Charleston, and I didn’t get arrested. But then I didn’t get satisfactory answers to my questions, either. He eventually went to jail for election fraud and I went on to become a public school band director for several years.

Since those days I have come to realize that most government and business projects, including those I pressed Mr. Moore too far on, have far less negative impact on the environment than the green lobby wants you to believe, but I also maintain my respect for and concern about the environment. So just because I don’t get all hot and bothered about global warming and the initiatives of the greenies, and just because I think the entire man-is-the-cause-of-global-warming madness is a bunch of super-hyperbolic hot air doesn’t mean that I don’t think we ought to take some steps to lessen the impact of human beings on the environment. I recycle plastic, newsprint and such, I try to keep our electricity use down, and I try to be a responsible adult where such things are concerned. Now, that won’t get me nominated for any environmental sensitivity awards, but every little bit helps, eh?

I think that we need to find a better energy source than oil, not only because burning it is dirty, but also because so much of the crude oil is in places that are either politically inaccessible or politically unstable, and the cost will rise as those difficulties become more relevant. One highly touted substitute for oil is ethanol, which burns cleaner than gasoline and diesel fuel and is made from the renewable resources corn and sugar cane. We grow lots of corn in the U.S. and we can grow more if we decide to; we also are developing the infrastructure to produce and use more ethanol in the coming years. Most of us will believe this is a good thing. I do.

But now comes news that the U.S. ethanol boom could push already-high natural gas prices even higher as building new distilleries and growing bigger corn crops raise industrial and agricultural demand for natural gas. Ethanol refineries tend to use natural gas-fueled boilers because they are seven times cheaper than ones that burn coal, and natural gas is also used in the production of fertilizer for corn, which is the main feedstock for ethanol in North America, and corn fields consume large amounts of fertilizer, the ammonia of which comes from natural gas. According to senior analyst Christopher Jarvis of Caprock Risk Management, "a rise in gas demand is in the cards for this year, and next, and an additional up-tick from ethanol could definitely have a material impact" on natural gas prices. "It's another way we're becoming dependent on natural gas," he said.

The ethanol boom has already contributed to inflation in the prices of bread, meat and diesel fuel, and could add roughly 1 percent to U.S. natural gas demand within the next 18 months, magnifying an already tight balance between production and rising consumption from homes, businesses and power plants. And if that isn’t bad enough, a Stanford University study claims that the widespread use of ethanol could pose a threat to human health. According to Mark Z. Jacobson, an atmospheric scientist, if every vehicle in the United States were powered by fuel made primarily from ethanol instead of gasoline, there would likely be an increase in the number of respiratory-related deaths and hospitalizations.

Changing our energy focus from oil to ethanol sounds good from a variety of standpoints, but change on such a grand scale is never as easy as it ought to be, and this one is no exception. Only by carefully weighing the pros and cons and thoughtfully developing sensible programs and policies to move away from oil can we hope to have a transition that will not cause as many problems as it solves.

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