Byron Scott, guest moderator: It’s midsummer in case you haven’t noticed. The corn is as high as the Rogers and Hammerstein elephant’s eye, and so is the price of gasoline. We’re discussing how the international ramifications of oil prices at $76 a barrel tie into the broader and less-selfish ramifications for clean energy, the environment and wonderful things for midwestern farmers and for American presidential candidates. The first American presidential caucus this year will be held in Iowa, and that is leading to a lot of statements from politicians about the use of corn for ethanol production and what good it might do. Where do we stand on ethanol production and how realistically does the technology balance with those political statements?
Jerry Perkins, farm editor, The Des Moines Register, Des Moines, Iowa: There is an historic tie between ethanol and the Iowa caucuses. The Iowa caucus was the first national test for presidential candidates going back to 1972, when George McGovern ran for president. That’s meant that presidential candidates now have had to come to Iowa and support ethanol. There have been a number of what we call “agri-pandering” cases where candidates have been opposed to ethanol, but when they show up in Iowa they’ve had miraculous conversions to support ethanol. The caucuses have really paved the way for ethanol.
Scott: Can ethanol be made from something besides corn?
Bill Hinchberger, editor and publisher, Brazilmax.com, Sao Paulo, Brazil: In Brazil, the primary source is sugar cane. Brazilians started using ethanol in the 1970s when, because of oil prices, the Brazilian government began providing incentives to produce ethanol from sugar cane. By the mid-1980s, almost all of the cars produced in Brazil were running exclusively on ethanol. So, Brazilians have a long experience of producing alternative fuel and cars that run efficiently on that fuel.
Scott: What is the situation in China?
Wenran Jiang, director, China Institute, University of Alberta, Alberta, Canada: China has a fast-growing economy, and the consequences of that are primarily on the environment. Close to 70 percent of China’s energy structure mix still comes from coal, which is basically dirty burning. The Chinese realize that they cannot drive the economy and not cause pollution at the same time, so they’re looking into various forms of saving energy and clean energy burning. But, China doesn’t have much clean energy produced by ethanol, nor is there a future hope of producing much, because of the huge pressure to use agricultural land primarily for food supply.
Scott: What’s the Washington perspective on the energy and climate debate?
Bracken Hendricks, senior fellow, Center for American Progress, Washington, D.C.: The reality is that we need to get off oil. In the Senate, there is a proposal to expand the renewable fuel standard to require 36 billion gallons of biofuels to be blended into the fuel mix by 2022. A move to get off of oil means that we need three things: efficient vehicles; an infrastructure for producing and distributing new fuels; and better cities so that we are less reliant on our vehicles. Diverse sources of biofuels will contribute to our fuel supply in the near future. Biofuels will remain extremely important to the farm economy, but we’ll also see new political coalitions coming together in support of biofuels and understanding that the move to a clean energy economy is not only an environmental and climate issue, but a fundamental jobs and economy issue. A clean-energy economy has the potential to be as transformative to the way we live and work as the Internet or the telecom revolution.
Scott: What is the view from the Iowa cornfields?
Perkins: Ethanol production from corn has really exploded in the past two years as the price of oil has gone up. We’ve seen a fundamental transformation in which the price of an acre of farmland now is tied to the price of a barrel of oil. The price of corn has gone up and a lot of people who invested in ethanol plants have received very handsome returns on their investments. It’s to the point where Wall Street has taken an interest and is starting to pump serious money into rural Iowa, reversing a decline that has gone on for 100 years.
Scott: Why aren’t we getting more of the Brazilian sugar cane ethanol in the U.S.?
Perkins: There is protectionist legislation on the part of the U.S. government that Brazilians have been complaining about for a long time. There are tariffs that add fees to the price of the gallon when it is sold in the U.S. and those measures are slowing the entry of Brazilian ethanol.
Scott: Efforts by some senators to get those tariffs rolled back have been unsuccessful haven’t they?
Hendricks: Yes. The tariffs were put in place to ensure development of ethanol in the U.S. America is going to need Brazilian sugar cane ethanol. The blending market could probably be met with American corn-based ethanol, but if we get up to 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gas, that will require a global biofuels market and new sources of ethanol. We are going to see evolution in the market.
Scott: Will relief come for China, and what can North America do to help?
Jiang: North America can do a lot. People may imagine that China can do something in the biofuel and ethanol area, but actually it can’t. China simply wouldn’t have the potential to produce ethanol on a large scale. Therefore, the Chinese are looking at using energy from wind and waste materials to generate electricity. The North American Energy Council’s visit to Beijing next week is a first effort to talk to the Chinese to see what can be done to manage energy efficiency, manage environment, and collaborate on technological cooperation.
Scott: How soon can North American consumers expect to see relief and how soon will that relief affect the environment?
Hendricks: It can’t be soon enough. We need alternatives and a fundamental transformation. This is an opportunity to rebuild our entire energy economy. Whoever the next president is, this issue is going to be front and center on his or her plate.
Scott: Is the need for alternative fuels a political bubble or a reality?
Perkins: Our petroleum resources are finite. Crops like corn are renewable. We can grow them every year and the future is clearly on the side of renewable fuels, but it’s only one portion of the answer.
Scott Afterword: For now politicians and experts agree: Everything has to be done right now, or better yet, yesterday. But do we smell hot air in the summer ether? Remember a guy named Jimmy Carter saying much of this before? Meanwhile, China has said that all public transportation vehicles at the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing will be powered by a blend of natural gas and hydrogen.
Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students John Amick, Devin Benton, Hyun-jin Seo and Catherine Wolf.