Grain-Ethanol Development Viewpoints from Western Kansas

27 04 2008

Following are the contents of an email I sent to Mark Steyn, Conservative Political Columnist for the National Review. This email has to do with the impetus behind the development of bioenergy / grain based ethanol in the U.S.. A critical view of an over zealous, unbalanced, environmental activist centric policy in the U.S. is presented in this email.

So, “what does this have to do with a Christian World View?” you probably are asking. Well, Christians are called to be stewards of this world, and to responsibly provide for their families as well as to take part in wise, measured leadership in determining the direction of their country.

My perspective is that “stewardship” involves responsible use of resources. We are called to use the resources of a fallen sinful world in a wise manner for God’s glory. I dont think God calls us to worship this physical world – rather we are to responsibly use the resources God has provided for us to carry on the activities of our lives. Our Christian focus is better placed on how best to live this life than on extremist environmental policies that would severely damage our economy and ways of life.

We are called to be environmental stewards for the sake of this and succeeding generations. We are not called to have as our goal the preservation of the environment with an extreme, zero tolerance perspective toward human activities. Pro environmental policies can be carried out in a balanced manner, avoiding extremist anti-resource use practices. Oil, coal, hydo-electric power, nuclear power, and even bioenergy can be responsibly used in the portfolio of energy sources people and societies need to support economies and do the maximum possible good for mankind. The only way to meet the extreme environmental goals of some of my well intentioned fellow citizens is to seriously curtail the economic activity of the U.S. and other world economies. Then how much good would we as Christians be doing for others if we forfeit the opportunity to responsibly use God-given resources for the betterment of the needy of this world?

So, I hope this can be the start of a dialogue with other people who seek to bring their personal values and beliefs into the public square, and who are concerned about coming up with balanced, responsible directions for the social and economic future of this country and the world overall.



Mr. Steyn,

I certainly enjoy reading your writings, and would like to offer some comments on grain based ethanol for you to consider.

In my work I spend considerable time in grain marketing-related Extension outreach and applied research activities associated with grain-based ethanol. Our (i.e. the U.S. public) association with and investment in grain based ethanol is a bi-product of our country’s environmental / energy policies. IF U.S. environmental policies had not a) inhibited energy / oil exploration and development in the vast majority of the U.S.
continental shelf (except for parts of the Gulf of Mexico), b) stopped or greatly slowed energy exploration in and near Alaska (ANWAR, North Slope, other areas both on and off land), and c) mandated the use of
pollution diminishing fuel oxygenates on at least a seasonal basis in a number of our major cities, THEN the U.S. would likely now have access to greater domestic supplies of petroleum, and would not have needed to
develop grain-based U.S. ethanol production in the first place. The third point regarding fuel oxygenates is of greater importance than we realize, as MTBE was a product originally being promoted by oil companies as a competitive substitute for grain-based ethanol.

However, in the energy bill of 2005 (I believe that is right), the U.S. government did not extend liability coverage to MTBE for suspected pollution of groundwater supplies in many areas of the U.S. Consequently, when the oil companies found that their fuel oxygenate product (MTBE) was not going to be legally protected by U.S. energy policy, then rather than open themselves up to lawsuits upon lawsuits from environmental groups, they switched to the use of grain-based ethanol “en mass”, driving the dramatic profits and expansion of grain based ethanol in the U.S. beginning in October 2006.

There was a time when many of the critics of grain based ethanol were heralding it as a valued part of the solution to energy problems in the U.S. Now, these same environmental / green advocacy oriented concerns
are lining up to roundly criticize grain based ethanol production. So, just as politicians who were once for the Iraq war have now switched their positions to denounce it, we not have the same “turning of face and consensus” against bioenergy.

There is one factor that is under appreciated in regards to the impact of grain-based ethanol supplies upon the current gasoline market. Given the inflexible demand of U.S. consumers for fuel, the provision
of an extra 5%+ of domestically produced fuel has had a suppressing impact upon gasoline prices in the U.S. Restated, given a near vertical demand curve for automobile fuel in the U.S., the availability of an extra 5%+ of fuel supplies has a more than nominal impact upon fuel prices, helping to keep them lower than otherwise would have been the case.

So, I respectfully disagree with you in regards to complete condemnation of the grain-based ethanol industry in the U.S. These people (energy companies, farmer investors, state and local government policy-makers) were being good economic agents – they were following the economic incentives placed before them by a supply-inhibited oil market (due to environmentally motivated / obsessed constrictions on supply development), by clean air policy in major U.S. cities which motivated the use of oxygenated fuels, and by the risk of lawsuits faced by oil companies should they have continued to use the primary oxygenate fuel substitute for grain based ethanol, i.e., MTBE.

Thanks for your work in the conservative cause. On this issue I respectively disagree with you and would encourage you to search further into the issues motivating the development of grain-based ethanol. Finding an unbiased opinion on the matter is hard to do.

Now what to do about it – that is the question.

If I were the 60th vote in the senate for a day, I would essentially declare a moratorium of support for further ethanol development beyond the current 13-14 million gallons of productive capacity per year. Also, I would cast a wary eye upon the likelihood of economically effective cellulosic ethanol supplies – the economics are simply not supportive, and infact are markedly worse from an economic viability point of view than for grain based ethanol. Instead I would focus upon the building of consensus across a broad range of political constituencies and groups to allow further environmentally neutral development of U.S. and allied country oil supplies, with an accompanying / companion strategic initiative and focus upon increased energy
efficiency. The transition to greater energy/fuel efficiency and environmentally friendly development of available fossil fuel supplies has to be deliberate, paced and environmentally and economically reasonable. But the alternative path we are currently on is to wreck the U.S and Canadian economies with knee-jerk, ill planned, environmentally-biased, energy constraining policies.

Take care,

An Aggie in Northwest Kansas