We are in a race. A race of participants who are scrounging for liquid fuels.
This thirst is insatiable. It causes competition and conflicts among the users, the environment, geo-political situations, water, and money.
Liquid fuels are embedded into our everyday lives and provide us with what we need. There are the tractors and combines used in agriculture, and the trucks which haul the just-in-time deliveries of every item, down every road, to every corner. Cars take us to our jobs, to our grocery stores, and to our entertainment, and airplanes allow for us to travel far, for fun, and for business. There is public transportation, freight trains, and the industries which manufacture our chemicals, plastics, metals, vehicles, textiles, shoes, ships, planes, household goods, and materials. Liquid fuels are required for our food system which relies upon refrigeration, cooking, processing, storage, transport, and packaging. They are needed by the people trying to improve their standard of living in the developing world. The shipping industry provides us with international trade, and finally, a very thirsty military helps to keep all of this liquid fuel flowing smoothly.
Liquid fuels allow the production of all of the other energy. We need liquid fuels to obtain more oil, make solar panels, wind generators, biofuels, to do fracking, to make our energy pipeline infrastructure and roads, to do mining for coal, bitumen, and metals, to run our refineries, build our nuclear power plants, to run and maintain our electrical grid, and produce electricity. Even the tree, the heat and cooking source of yesterday, is cut down today by using liquid fuel.
Liquid fuels save us an enormous amount of time, giving us leisure and a quality of life that our ancestors a few generations ago would not have dreamed of. They have allowed for us to afford and find an amazing variety of food choices at our local grocery store all year-round, perhaps the crowning achievement of this industrial age that we live in.
As today’s liquid fuel pie is being ever stretched and divided, its price is increasing and that is “taxing” individuals and national economies. We have entered the age of obtaining our liquid fuels from unconventional sources which are more difficult to extract, more expensive, more water intensive and polluting, and more environmentally damaging.
At the same time, our atmosphere is warming and we listen to prophets telling us the end is nigh. We aren’t willing to give up the comforts and luxuries that energy provides us with. That’s our human nature.
All of the above provides the background for the purpose of this writing.
Biofuels to the rescue! Biofuel processes take inputs of various other forms of energy and convert them into liquid fuels, and today there is an emerging desperation for affordable liquid fuels.
At the same time that Europe is denouncing biofuels that compete for human food on moral grounds, our military, particularly the Navy, is embracing them as the answer to our energy problems. Our Dept. of Defense is partnering with our Dept. of Agriculture, in agreement that this is a national security issue that can be solved by future science. We are on course to have biofuels fuel 50 percent of our Air Force and Navy by 2020. Our military currently uses 120 million barrels of oil per year, at a cost of over $16 billion this year.
According to my neighbor (literally), Mark Udall (D) Senator-Colorado, we can’t afford NOT to make the investments for R&D funding for fuels that use biological feedstocks. Benefits are to come to our economy, our environment, and our national security.
Udall is overall, a good environmentalist, but as an agricultural writer, I differ strongly with him on this subject, since I see biofuels as the most environmentally destructive agricultural policy that our government has adopted in many decades.
The cynic in me sees this as politics gone astray since today’s biofuels policies support monoculture commodity prices which were too low to pay for crop inputs a few short years ago. The plan is that future advanced drop-in biofuels will come from sources other than corn and soybean crops, but, it’s just too tempting to use the crops that we can so easily over-produce right now, and to keep using them for our biofuel feedstocks. (Drop-in fuels are able to use the existing infrastructure.) As a perfect example, our newest cellulosic ventures plan to use corn stover as feedstock, not the proverbial pie-in-the-sky switchgrass. The extreme cynic in me sees the military industrial complex at work here.
Following Udall’s eloquent 15-minute plea to the Senate this past week, an amendment was passed 62-37 which removed provisions from the National Defense Authorization Act prohibiting the military from testing and using alternative fuels. A second amendment also passed which allows the DOD to invest in biorefineries where those liquid fuels can be produced at commercial-scale.
Now, the miltary can be the tail which wags the industrial agriculture dog. From here on out, I suspect that the line will be forever blurred between the agricultural production of food and fuel in America.
(Source of photos: Wikipedia.)