Monday, November 17, 2008

Could Obama's energy plan destroy the environment?

Wired has a headline story today about about a biofuel start-up, and while the article is generally pretty disappointing (nothing about whether or not this company is receiving – or looking for – subsidies?), it's got an absolutely horrifying caveat at the end that some environmentalists think that a biofuel-based energy industry could spell environmental disaster. The article (.pdf) cites a report by the ETC Group, an environmental organization, which warns that even if our economy comes to depend on biofuels not made from food, there is still the risk that the land needs of whatever biomass we end up using will become untenable, and the impact on global food prices could be analogous to what happened with ethanol and food prices in 2007-08.

They term this a "sugar economy," and by sugar they mean carbohydrates in general – foods like corn, but also just generally anything that has ever been living (switchgrass, trees, leaves, etc.). These environmentalists worry that the Economist was being naïve when it said "there's plenty of biomass to go around," and that the poor of the global South will be the ones who end up yielding their cropland to the production of biomass to be liquified for use as America's fuel. The parallel with one form of biofuel – ethanol – is striking. The US government recently believed (ridiculously enough) that ethanol would be an effective and environmentally-friendly way of weening the US off of oil. As it turns out, ethanol is both environmentally deleterious and was responsible for the vast majority of the recent spike in global food prices, which hit developing countries especially hard.

Ethanol's rise began when the government started subsidizing it, and the ETC Group's conclusions would suggest that Obama's promise to subsidize biofuel research and production could lead to similar problems, as biofuel production crowds out the marketplace for food and land in general. What's even more jarring, though, is that Obama's energy plans are much more ambitious than America's recent corn ethanol subsidies, which barely made a dent in the market for fuel in the US. The world's big biggest rent-seekers feel the subsidies about to stream in, and have begun partnering with biofuel startups – the list (36-37 of the report) is a who's-who of America's greatest rent-seeking corporations, with ADM, DuPont, GM, and literally every major pharmaceutical and oil company looking to get in on Obama's promised subsidy binge.

As for the veracity of ETC's claims, it all depends on a) the efficiency that biofuel producers can achieve; and b) whether or not they receive the subsidies that Obama promises, and on what basis he chooses to allocate them. I guess we'll see in the coming months and years how serious Obama is about creating a new government-dependent energy industry, and how firms react to the incentives of his policy.

Edit: More on potential ecological destruction caused by non-food biofuels.

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