Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Politics and Sacrifice

This is one of those topics I have been wanting to write about for some time, but never found the hook. Pontificating on politics is easy, but talk about sacrifice, who does that anymore? We live in a society that reveres athleticism, glamour, celebrity, wealth and many other not-so-worthy attributes. Sacrifice, civic responsibility, altruism are so like, last century.

Also, the subject always veers in religion and a tirade against those bible-thumping, self-serving pimps to big business like Tom DeLay and W, who preach a personal relationship with Jesus, but act in the antithesis of his teachings, and the so-called religious right, who pay lip-service to Christianity, but are actually more interested in forcing their self-centered moralism on the rest of America and the world. For some reason sacrifice is not one of their talking points.

It was, however, the center focus of last night's Katy Area Democrats meeting from both speakers, Barbara Ann Radnofsky and Chris Bell. Radnofsky is the Democratic nominee for US senate, running against Kay Bailey Hutchison R-TX, and Chris Bell is the Democratic nominee for Texas Governor, running against Governor Goodhair (Rick Perry), Carole Keeton (McClellan Rylander) Strayhorn, and Kinky Friedman. Both candidates invoked the age old concepts of public good, responsible citizenship, and yes, sacrifice. Coincidence, I think not; more likely a convergence of good politics and good policy. Is this part of Howard Dean's 50 state program? I certainly hope so.

Ms. Radnofsky spoke quite candidly of her grandfather and father's service in WW I & II. She reminded us of the sacrifices asked of all Americans during these times of crises, and she asked, "After 9/11, what sacrifice was asked of you? Go shopping!" People lined up outside blood banks after the terrorist attacks because they wanted to give of themselves, but were told go spend money instead. What a waste of human potential.

Bell pointed out what a good job the Republicans have done since Bush was enthroned in 2000, of calling everyone who disagrees with them "out of the mainstream." Question Iraq, warrantless wiretaps or deficit spending and you are "out there." Mention global warming, the healthcare crisis or the failing middle class, and you are "one of the fanatical left." His plan is to call for a "new mainstream," one that combines the people's outrage at what has happened in this country in the last six years with a call for sacrifice that Americans should willingly give.

Americans want to be safe from terrorism, but they should also want to be free from a government bent on destroying the constitution in the process. Americans should know that energy independence and alternative sources of power will improve our national security, our economy and our world from global warming. Americans should want the country to be prosperous, but not at the expense of the middle class who pay most the bills, the elderly who have already given so much, or our children, who are our future. Americans should demand leaders who deal honestly with these and all other issues of the day.

It is not pessimistic, fanatical or outside the mainstream to want to confront the difficult issues that lay ahead and be willing to work hard, to sacrifice, to overcome obstacles and achieve greatness again. It is the earliest known American Value and one that still exists today. Chris Bell and Barbara Ann Radnofsky know this, and they deserve our respect, our money and our vote.

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Sunday, May 14, 2006

Ethanol - OK to drink but don't put it in your car

Complete following phrase:

Ethanol is to Energy Solutions as Pork is to …...

A. Food
B. Offending Muslims
C. Happy Farmers
D. Barrel Politics
E. All of the Above

The answer of course is E – all of the above.

Without going into detail about my answer let me tell you where am I going with this. All over the news lately I have seen Talking Heads going on about the wonderful prospects of ethanol to replace oil. This is just complete BS. There is considerable debate as to whether corn-based ethanol is actually energy positive – meaning that it puts out more energy as a fuel than was used to create it. Assuming for the time being that it is, its EROEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested) is generally assumed to be low (1.3??), and considerable fossil fuel is required to make ethanol.

Here are some facts about corn based ethanol from my good friend Engineer-Poet:

Can ethanol from corn or other grain replace gasoline?

Answer: Almost certainly not, for several reasons.
There isn't enough grain. The best process we have makes about 2.66 gallons of ethanol from a bushel of corn (maize). The 2004 maize harvest was about 11.8 billion bushels; if all of it was used for ethanol, it could make a maximum of 31.4 billion gallons of ethanol (with energy equivalent to about 22 billion gallons of gasoline). US gasoline consumption in 2003 was roughly 134 billion gallons, or more than 6 times the amount which can be replaced by ethanol production from corn. Total US motor fuel consumption (gasoline and diesel fuel) is approximately 200 billion gallons per year.

Ethanol requires too much other fuel to produce it. A gallon of ethanol (84,200 BTU) consumes about 33,000 BTU of heat in the distillation process alone. Some of this heat comes from coal or cogenerators, but most distillers burn natural gas or LPG. LPG is a petroleum byproduct, and natural gas supplies are tight and getting tighter. Ethanol producers are competing with people who need to heat their homes. The energy losses of the ethanol process make it more efficient to burn the grain for heat, and use the LPG or natural gas as motor fuel (source).
The 33,000 BTU’s to make a gallon of ethanol discussed above does not include any of the energy required to plant, fertilize, grow, harvest, and transport the corn to the factory to make ethanol. A number of serious scientists are convinced that if all this required energy is properly accounted for, corn-based ethanol uses up more energy than it gives back.

How could this be? Dan Rather was waxing eloquently on "60 Minutes" the other day about the wonders of corn-derived ethanol. And on the other end of the Talking Head Spectrum, my hero, Bill O’Reilly (O’Lielly) told me that Brazil was energy self-sufficient due to its investments in sugarcane-derived ethanol. Who is telling the truth here?

Well first of all, you know that if Bill O’Reilly is hawking this, something must smelling fishy. Although Brazil has had a relatively successful program promoting ethanol, it has had an even more successful program exploring for oil and gas. Consequently, their oil production has reached a level where they are close to being energy independent. Ethanol helps in this regard, but the main engine for their energy success has been deepwater oil exploration and development in the Campos Basin.

So in the end what do we have?

Ethanol is to Energy as Pork is to Food. True – but man cannot live on pork alone.

Ethanol does at least present the appearance that we are trying to break free of dependence on Middle East oil – Disappointing the Saudis (Muslims).

Ethanol, as a subsidized source of profit for mid-western corn farmers certainly makes them happy.

But primarily the promotion of corn-based ethanol is designed to shore up political support in some of the mid-western swing states. Corn is best used for food, not running cars down the freeway. We have to come up with better solution, one that actually is good for the whole country.

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