Ending Our Oil Addiction: Reality Check

by RAYMOND S. KRAFT July 2, 2008

I have before me a nice letter from California Sen. Barbara Boxer, in which she extols her sponsorship of S.3044, a bill to impose "windfall profits taxes" on Big Oil. She writes, "At a time when so many Americans are struggling to make ends meet and having to make the impossible choice between buying food for their families and filling up their gas tank, I am deeply disturbed that some of my colleagues [Republicans] prevented this important bill from moving forward."

"Windfall profits taxes" would, of course, do nothing to increase supply, or bring down the price of gas or the price of food, which have been driven up by the Democrats' own policies of opposing oil production in America, and turning food into fuel, thereby driving up the cost of both. The solution Democrats and Environmentalists propose for rising fuel prices is, as we all know, "biofuels," "sustainable fuels," the Holy Grail of the Greens. Yesterday, I heard Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, once more call for "ending our oil addiction." But if we look a little closer, it soon becomes apparent that the Democrats and Greens cannot possibly have worked out the logistics of ending ouroil addiction, which are mind-boggling indeed. Unless they have, of course, and are desperately clinging to a total denial of reality, just as middle America clings to its guns and God.

To preface, most of the raw data about biofuels that I use to make the calculations below comes from the article, "Green Dreams: Making Fuel From Crops Could Be Good For The Planet - After A Breakthrough Or Two," in National Geographic, October 2007. I am making the assumption that the data in National Geographic is reasonably accurate, for National Geographic has a good reputation to maintain.

The Motor Cars We Have

The Department of Transportation estimates about 250,000,000 passenger cars, motorcycles, and light trucks, in the U.S., about one vehicle per driver. In addition, there are many millions of commercial vehicles, trucks, tractors, delivery and service vans, construction equipment, and so forth, some 300,000,000 motor vehicles in America today, one for every American, and tens of thousands of railroad locomotives and airplanes. All but a handful run on petroleum fuel.

Most cars have a life cycle of about 15-20 years, so even if we could quit producing gasoline-powered cars today, and start producing 100% "biofuel" cars tomorrow, or electric cars, or hydrogen cars, or magical mystery fuel cars, we would still have to consume tens of millions of barrels of oil per day for the next 10, 15, 20 years until the cars and trucks, airplanes and trainswe have now are retired.

But even we switch to all "flex-fuel" cars tomorrow, as some propose, it accomplishes nothing until we have enough biofuel to replace petroleum fuel. And we can't yet produce electric or hydrogen fueled cars on a commercial scale. And for electric cars, hydrogen cars, and "flex-fuel" cars to work, we have to produce enough electricity, enough hydrogen, or enough biofuel, to replace much ofthe 22 million barrels of oil we use now, every day. We must produce enough electricity, hydrogen, ethanol, bio-diesel, or "bio-petroleum,"to replace 22 million barrels, 924 million gallons of oil, every day. Eight billion barrels, 337 billion gallons of oil every year.

The Ethanol Mandate

U.S. lawcurrently mandates nine billion gallons of ethanol blended intointo gasoline by 2010, equal to about 2.6% of US fuel consumption. Currently, 25% of the U.S. corn crop goes for ethanol, driving up food and fuel prices. The ethanol mandate rises to 36 billion gallons by 2022, which would consume more than 100% of the U.S. corn crop, if it were all made from corn. At 300 gallons per acre, corn yields 192,000 gallons per square mile. It takes 5,208 square miles to produce one billion gallons of corn ethanol. It would take 187,488 square miles of corn farms to meet the 2022 ethanol mandate of 36 billion gallons, an area about the size of the entire state of California, plus West Virginia.

To replace all petroleum fuels with corn ethanol would require a "corn farm" of about 1.5 billion acres, or 2,500,000 square miles, which is approximately 2/3 the size of the entire United States.

How Much Oil Would Ethanol Replace?

22 million barrels of oil equals about 924 million gallons, a day. Some of that goes to producing and transporting petroleum fuels, and some goes to plastics and fertilizers, but most becomes gasoline, diesel, home heating oil, and jet fuel. Ethanol contains about 67% as much energy as petroleum fuels, so I am going to make a round-number estimate that it will take a billion gallons of ethanol a day to replace our gasoline and diesel consumption, or about 365 billion gallons a year. If we meet the 2020 mandate for 36 billion gallons, that will replace about 10% of our petroleum fuels, and reduce our oil imports (everything else being equal) from 12 million barrels a day to 10 million barrels a day. If we grow 187,488 square miles of corn, we can produce enough ethanol to run the country for . . . one month.

But, wait! It requires at least 75% of the energy we get out of ethanol to produce ethanol, so we have a net energy gain of only 33%. Three gallons in - four gallons out. Thus, that 36 billion gallons actually yields a net gain of only 9 billion gallons, so that 36 billion gallons will actually run the country for . . . nine days.

And since it takes 75% as much energy to produce a gallon of ethanol as we get from a gallon of ethanol, we're going to have to grow about 6 billion acres of corn to produce enough ethanol to produce all that ethanol and run the country, too, so we'll need a farm four times the size of America.

Sugar Cane?

Sugar cane is a far more efficient source of ethanol than corn, yielding 750 gallons per acre, more than twice as much as corn, and it takes less energy to produce. But we don't have the climate for it. Brazildoes, and currently produces about 4 billion gallons of ethanol from sugar cane, which provides 20% of Brazil's motor fuels. The other 80% comes from oil.

Some folk want to import vast amounts of sugar cane ethanol from Brazil. But Brazil has no surplus to sell. To increase production, in orderto produceone billion gallons of ethanol, enough to power the U.S. for one day, we mustslash and burn 2,000 square miles of sacred Amazon Rainforest.To replace allour gasoline and diesel, we would have to sacrifice 730,000 square miles of virginal Amazon Rainforest to the Ethanol God.


Biodiesel requires less energy to produce than corn ethanol ,one gallon in, 2.5 gallons out, yielding a 150% net energy gain. But according to the Wikipeadia article on the subject, it yields only about 1/3 as much fuel per acre as corn: 60-100 gallons per acre for soybeans, the largest biodiesel crop in the US, 90 gpa for peanut oil, 82 gpa for sunflower oil, and 102 gpa for rapeseed oil. Thus to produce a billion gallons of biodiesel, we need to farm at least 10,000,000 acres, or 15,625 square miles of soybeans, peanuts, sunflowers, or rapeseed.

How big is that? Well, in a square 100 miles on a side, there are 10,000 square miles. Biodiesel, unlike ethanol, contains as much energy as petroleum diesel. So to grow enough biodiesel for one day we need a farm 100 miles by 100 miles, 10,000 square miles, 6.4 million acres. To grow enough biodiesel to fuel America for a month, we need a farm 100 miles north to south, and 3,000 miles east to west, from sea to shining sea. Bigger than Texas.

But if we add enough more biodiesel to produce the energy it takes to produce a month's worth of biodiesel, we're going to have to plant 420,000 square miles, a farm as large as Texas plus California.

Cellulosic Ethanol? Switchgrass?

Switchgrass is expected to produce up to 1,000 gallons of ethanol per year, if, or when, the technology for producing cellulosic ethanol efficiently is perfected. Even President Bush has endorsed switchgrass. To replace one day's worth of petroleum fuel with ethanol from switchgrass will require only one million acres of switchgrass farms, a mere 1,562 square miles. So, to replace 100% of US oil consumption would require just 570,130 square miles of switchgrass farms, more than twice the size of Texas, almost exactly the size of Alaska.

To fuel America for one month would require a switchgrass farm the size of Mississippi, or New York, or North Carolina.

In April, 2008, George Huber of the University of Massachusetts Amherst received a $400,000 CAREER grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a method of making "green gasoline" from the 1.3 billion dry tons of cellulosic biomass the U.S. could potentially produce each year - read "wood chips," I think, and other agricultural waste- which he believes could yield four billion barrels of crude oil, to replace1/2 of America's oil consumption.Where do wood chips come from? Trees. So, will we log America's forests to make "green gasoline?"I thought the Greens were against logging, right?

If we assume 100 tons of woodchips from an acre of trees, we're going to have to clear cut 13,000,000 acres of trees each year to produce all that "green gasoline."That's a swath of dead forest about 100 by 200 miles, and in 15 years we would have logged off an area of national forests equal to a strip of land 100 miles wide and 3,000 miles long, again, from sea to shining sea.And this is "green?"

Oil from Green Algae?

Greenfuel Technologies of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and several other companies, are working to develop a commercial process to produce ethanol, jet fuel, and biodiesel from different strains of Green Algae.They predict that Green Algae can produce 5,000 gallons of fuel per acre, per year, grown in watertanks. This is five times the productivity of switchgrass, which makes it by far the best option for biofuel, when, or if, it can be produced ona sufficiently large scale.

To replace our petroleum with Algae fuels would only require 1/5 the area of switchgrass, or about 114,000 square miles. This would require an Algae farm only 100 miles wide by 1,140 miles long, less than half the size of Texas, a little smaller than California, almost exactly the size of Arizona. So, I ask, where are we going to build a Green Algae factory with millions of water tanks growing algae for fuel, the size of Arizona? Assuming the tanks are filled three feet deep with water, where is that 219,000,000 acre feet of water going to come from?Enough water to flood the entire state of Arizona three feet deep.

And what will be the environmental impact of building an Algae Fuel Factory that covers 114,000 square miles?That would be the biggest industrial project in history, by far, consuming billions of tons of concrete and steel for tanks and pipes, and paving over a block of sensitive wildlife habitat the size of, well, Arizona, which would doubtless cause the extinction of dozens, maybe hundreds of species of plants and animals with a limited range, in flagrant violation of the Endangered Species Act. Will the Sierra Club demand an Environmental Impact Report?

Well, if we can't drill, we better get started. If we build a thousand square miles of Algae Factory each year, starting now, we can be done by 2022.

Electric Cars?

Environmentalists wax enthusiastic about electric cars, "zero emissions vehicles," they call them.

If they ever awaken from their green dreams, they will discover (surprise!) that electric cars aren't "zero emission vehicles. " They just relocate the emissions from the car to the electric power plants, most of which burn coal and natural gas. The only "zero emissions power plants" are the hydroelectric dams, which the Greens oppose, and the nuclear power plants, which the Greens also oppose. And a few geothermal plants.

Oil provides about 40% of America's energy consumption, almost all for transportation. That's a lot of energy.We can run cars on electricity, but we don't produce a lot of surplus electricity. So if weswitch toelectric cars, we will need to increase our electricity supply by 50%-75%. If we replace oil with electricity, we are going to have to build some 300 new coal-fired power plants, or gas-fired power plants, or hydroelectric power plants, or geothermal power plants, or nuclear power plants, or millions and millions of bird-killing windmills, or thousands and thousands of square miles of solar farms, to produce all that new electricity it will take to run our cars. And we'll have to build thousands and thousands of miles of new power lines criss-crossing the country to transport all the extra electricity to where hundreds ofmillions of cars are plugged in.

Electric cars need batteries. A compact electric car carries about 500 pounds of batteries. Bigger cars need bigger batteries.Auto sales in the U.S. are about 15 million vehicles per year. Thus, to convert to electric cars with batteries, we must mine and refine at least five million tons of lithium, copper, nickel, lead, and whatever other metals are used to make 15 million battery packs for all those cars. Five million moretons ofmetals mined each year. That's a lot of new mining that will have to be cranked up, andhere I thought Environmentalists were opposed to mining, pillaging Mother Earth. Ah, silly me.

One Addiction for Another

The Democrats and Greens who push for "biofuels" and "zero emissions vehicles"don't dare mention the unprecedented enormity of theenvironmental impact that producing enough biofuel and electricity andbatteriesto replace all or most or even much of our "oil addiction" will cause. And they don't dare mention that by replacing our "oil addiction" with an "ethanol addiction" weare simply substituting one addiction for another. Are the Democrats and Environmentalists really prepared to sacrifice 114,000 square miles of the environmentally fragile Desert Southwest to the Ethanol God?

What we have is not an oil addiction, or an ethanol addiction, but an "energy addiction. "The entire structure of the modern, industrialized world runs on energy. Energy for manufacturing, for transportation, for pumping vast quantities of water around so there's water in your tap when you open the faucet, water to flush your toilet, water to water your lawn, and water to grow the crops that are the food you eat.It takes enormous amounts of energy to pump the waste water from your home back to a water treatment plant, and treat it so that it's clean enough to discharge back into a river. Withoutlots of energy, industrialized civilizationends. Stops.The party's over. Back to the Stone Age. The horse and buggy age, at least. And it should be obvious that turning most of America into biofuel farms, or a space the size of Arizona into an Algae Fuel factory, is not a practical solution.

If Democrats in Congress (and some Republicans)are really as scientifically and economically ignorant and illiterate as they seem, it is truly appalling that such profound ignorance and illiteracy has become embedded in Congress, where national policy is made by people incompetent to make it. If Democrats are merely determined to seem as ignorant andilliterate as they seem, in order to appeal to scientifically and economically ignorant andilliterate voters, it is an act of supreme political cynicism and disingenuousness. If Democrats are not as ignorant as they seem, then their seeming is a deception. A vast Left-wing conspiracy to lie for votes.

The rush to "biofuels" is destined to be the Mother of All Boondoggles.

Democrats say, "We can't drill our way out of this." Wrong. We can only drill our way out of this. The only non-delusional solution is to drill here, drill now, and produce the oil we know is in the ground in America. Maybe it won't last forever, but it will give us decades, generations, to develop nuclear and geothermal power enough to transition, over the next 50 years, from a petroleum-based transportation system to clean, unlimited hydrogen fuel, extracted from sea water.

That Great Sucking Sound You Hear

On June 28th OPEC President Chakib Khelil predicted that the price of oil will rise to $170 a barrel this year. Get ready for $6 gas.At $170 a barrel, America will be exporting $935 million dollars a day to OPEC, to buy 5.5 million barrels of OPEC oil each day. Why? Because Democrats won't let us drill for our own. At $170 a barrel, that's $341 billion American dollars a yeardeported to OPEC. Nearly a billion dollars a day. If that $341 billion were reinvested in oil production in America, it would generate 13,640,000 new jobs for Americans in America, at $50,000 per job.

That great sucking sound you hear is 13 million American jobs going down the drain to OPEC.

Ifenough Americans everwake up and sees how far they've been sold down the river by the "environmental protection" policies the Democrats and Greens have locked us into, and the fantastical chimera of "biofuels" they're running after, the Dems are gonna gettarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail.

Family Security Matters Contributing Editor Raymond S. Kraft is an attorney and writer in Northern California. He can be contacted at rskraft@vfr.net.

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