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Counterpoint: The ethics of ethanol


Keith Hazelton April 19th, 2007

Addiction, it is said, often blinds those so afflicted to the moral and ethical considerations of behaviors intent on satisfying their habits. In our present oil addiction, we so fervently have embra...

Addiction, it is said, often blinds those so afflicted to the moral and ethical considerations of behaviors intent on satisfying their habits.

In our present oil addiction, we so fervently have embraced corn ethanol as one solution to our petroleum dependency that we have neglected to question the ethical and moral propriety of using food for fuel.

In 2005, we put about an eighth of the entire U.S. corn crop into our gasoline tanks. Those plump, golden kernels, once destined to become snack chips or cereals or tortillas or sweeteners, were converted into 4 billion gallons of ethanol and used as an additive to 150 billion gallons of gasoline consumed that year.

This year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates farmers will plant a near-record 90 million acres of corn, the largest crop in more than 60 years and up 15 percent from last year, as the nation's farmers cash in on surging demand and prices.

Doing the math, the entire 2007 corn crop this year would produce about 36 billion gallons of ethanol, slightly more than a fifth of our annual gasoline needs. And gasoline accounts for less than half our daily minimum petroleum requirement of nearly 21 million barrels of oil per day, of which 60 percent is imported.

Our driving pleasure at the prospect of stabilized fuel prices from increased corn ethanol will be, in this country, offset by pain in other parts of our wallets where we will feel the impact of the higher costs of this "renewable" resource.

In other, poorer, countries, whose inhabitants often may not have wallets, they might know only the pain of higher food costs, or, worse, food shortages from a diminishing surplus of U.S. corn available to export.

Some of those people may live immediately south of us, which, in turn, may provide further incentive to enter the United States in search of work, food and a better life.

Until 2000, we exported 40 million to 50 million tons of corn a year " not quite 20 percent of the crop " and we were the biggest corn exporter in the world. In a decade, perhaps, at our current pace, we may export nothing.

Higher grain costs already are beginning to register throughout our economy. In mid-March, according to the Wall Street Journal, the Department of Labor reported prices for "crude foodstuffs and feedstuffs" rose nearly 19 percent from a year ago, and wholesale consumer food prices were almost 7 percent above year-ago levels, evidence of grain price increases and higher farming and ranching operating costs from more costly energy.

So now, in classic addictive behavior, we are in the process of rounding up anything we can convert to fuel and pour into a gas tank " even the very food we would put in our mouths.

According to experts, addictions are best treated by eliminating an offending substance or behavior, certainly not by increasing the supply or turning to alternate fixes.

So, instead of public policies to reduce overall fuel consumption (and thus imports) over a reasonable time " say a decade " through 50 percent higher automobile mileage standards and by mandating and funding mass transit systems in the hundred largest metropolitan areas, our oil addiction has led us to view any means acceptable to meet our increasing demand, including using food for fuel.

The law of unintended consequences, however, compels us to examine this issue sooner rather than later.


Hazelton is a wealth manager living in northwest Oklahoma City.

 

 
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