Saturday, March 03, 2007

The environment: taking small steps to ruin the atmosphere; Grassley doesn't mind funding terrorists

"Moderate" Senator Grassley has something to say about ethonal imports. And other interests would hate to see the United States actually import cheap energy other than oil ("U.S. and Brazil Seek to Promote Ethanol in West," New York Times, March 3, 2007):
In a letter to President Bush on Thursday, Senator Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa, said he failed to understand “why the United States would consider spending U.S. taxpayer dollars to encourage new ethanol production in other countries.”

The proposed partnership, Mr. Grassley warned, could become a backdoor way for Brazil to escape the tariff on imported ethanol that currently insulates American producers.
Meanwhile, of course, we cap some our oil wells because we can't cheap with cheap, cheap OPEC oil. The article continues:
The United States imposes a tariff of 54 cents a gallon on imported ethanol, but Caribbean nations and countries in the Central American Free Trade Agreement are exempt from those duties if they make the ethanol from products grown in their own countries. Using Brazilian technology for refining sugar-cane-based ethanol, such countries could in time become exporters to the United States.

In addition, Caribbean nations can export a limited amount of ethanol that comes indirectly from Brazil and other countries. Under the Caribbean Basin Initiative, which has been in force for years, countries can take partly processed ethanol from a country like Brazil and carry out the last step in processing before shipping it to the United States. But the region is allowed to export that kind of ethanol only up to a limit of 7 percent of United States’ ethanol consumption.

Last year, the United States imported about 600 million gallons of ethanol, and about 200 million gallons came indirectly from Brazil through the Caribbean, according to Robert Dineen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association, a trade group that represents ethanol producers. The total imports of all kinds of ethanol amounted to slightly more than 10 percent of American consumption last year.

For the moment, American ethanol producers are watching warily but not protesting.

“I don’t believe the fundamental objective of the administration is to produce ethanol in the Caribbean for export to the United States,” Mr. Dineen said. But, he added, American companies will be watching to see if the initiative becomes “the camel’s nose under the tent.”
Really, why not? It sure as hell beats exporting petroleum from the Middle East. I'm not saying that because I think ethanol is going to be our savior. It actually seems to have very few benefits. But it is something.

It seems to me that if demand for ethanol actually grows to the point where it becomes a common component of fuels (face it, we probably can't produce enough to make it our primary fuel), there might be enough demand to make every producer, foreign and domestic, happy—especially with subsidies we already offer American producers still in place.

It's imperative that we reduce our dependence on petroleum products. Setting aside the environmental aspects of consuming gasoline, the fact remains that buying oil puts money into the coffers of terrorist governments like Saudi Arabia.

I'm by no means a fan of preserving the subsidized transportation and development of the American suburb, but at least this has the potential to reduce the damage wrought by cheap gasoline. I feel that we should do more to limit that damage that cars do to our cities, however.

One solution is better public transportation in urban areas, which allows for energy to be produced at a better scale than a small internal combustion motor, as well as move emissions away from densely populated areas (reducing that smog effect you see even in cities with good public transportation, such as New York).

Public transportation is itself admittedly a dangerous proposition. Despite the common belief that public transportation causes little or no damage to the environment, it indeed does when it's not used effectively. Enter a case such as Washington, D.C., where the heavy rail rapid transit system allows workers to live ever further away from the central city. They may take the train into the city and reduce traffic congestion (it's possible, but I'm not sure if I believe that either), but the fact of the matter is most of them probably go in for work. When they get home, they're using their cars at least as much as they would at any other time. And if you imagine that some people who live in distant exurbs have to drive a long distance to get to a train station, you also have to figure many of them are living in places where they have to drive to get food, clothing, go out, go to church, visit friends, and do whatever other things exurbanites do. So in reality, not only is the public transportation idea a wash, but it's very likely that people are venting more emissions because of public transportation in some cases.

Image information:
  • Image Information (smog in New York, 1988, from WikiPedia)
  • The second image I took after taking off from Los Angeles International Airport in January; some of the distortion probably comes from the plane window, but it's a striking image of the smog in the L.A. metropolitan area.
  • David Owen wrote an interesting article in The New Yorker ("Green Manhattan," PDF) on the positive effects of places like Manhattan on the environment, and also spoke about the D.C. transportation system and its effects on the environment.
  • From the Washington Post: "Around D.C., A Cheaper House May Cost You" (October 12, 2006)

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