“Long-term technological transformation”

Wednesday, May 31st

A rabid dog with an old bone, Competitive Enterprise Institute won’t drop the anti-climate change science diatribe.* Instead of carbon constraints, CEI and its major backer, ExxonMobil, extol “long-term technological transformation” and “resiliency in societies by increasing wealth.”

What might that mean, precisely, when it comes to a technology like ethanol, to these purveyors of the ‘free market’?

Ethanol is not disruptive; it fits comfortably into the industrial system: consistent, mechanized, predictable, interchangeable and economically scalable. (It’s not threatening in the same way as the fuel-switching electric car, now the subject of the film “Who Killed the Electric Car?) In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, A Natural History of Four Meals, journalism professor, Michael Pollan, writes, “everything about corn meshes smoothly with the gears of this great [industrial] machine.”

Ethanol from corn is no exception…or it shouldn’t be. The American Petroleum Institute, ExxonMobil’s trade association, intimates in the press that ethanol can’t perform; it supports the alternative fuel, but only as an additive to petrol. To drag feet on ethanol but champion technological transformation and resilient wealth is to jabber gibberish.

Ethanol was a golden queen showered with accolades at U.S. Senator Ken Salazar’s Renewable Energy Summit this year in Denver. It is fast on the lips of Senator Lugar Richard Lugar and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. It is an old technology (the first Model-T was built to run on ethanol), and with a still from Dogwood Energy, says Dogwood, you can make ethanol at home for 75 cents per gallon. Oil refiners will accept E85 (petrol that’s 85% ethanol). The balancing act between supply (the gas station owners who must pay for retrofitting pumps for ethanol) and demand (the number of drivers seeking ethanol at the pump) has begun. Marketplace drivers are priming getting-cheaper-than-petrol (and subsidized) ethanol to compete with volatile (and heavily subsidized) petrol.

And it will help farmers, right?

Crack open Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Corn takes up the entire first chapter. Dilemma is not about bio-fuels – cellulosic or otherwise – yet it goes a long way to explain the farming system in the U.S., and why it will be large corporations who (corporations being persons under the law) will benefit from refining corn and corn stalks into ethanol.

“Beginning in the 1980s, big buyers of grain like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) took a hand in shaping the farm bills, which predictably came to reflect their interests more closely than those of the farmers…It’s not all that clear that very many American farmers know exactly what hit them, even now. The rhetoric of competitiveness and free trade persuaded many of them that cheap corn would be their salvation, and several putative farmers’ organizations have bought into the virtues of cheap corn…So the plague of cheap corn goes on, impoverishing farmers (both here and in the countries to which we export it), degrading the land, polluting the water, and bleeding the federal treasury, which now spends up to $5 billion a year subsidizing cheap corn. But though those subsidy checks go to the farmer (and represents nearly half of the net farm income today), what the Treasury is really subsidizing are the buyers of all that cheap corn. [Says Iowa farmer George Naylor], ‘Agriculture’s always going to be organized by the government; the question is, organized for whose benefit? Now it’s for Cargill and Coca-Cola. It’s certainly not for the farmer.”

And one day, certain oil companies.

First, the hard work gets done by most everyone else: grassroots early adopters retrofit “flex-fuel” vehicles and home-distill fuel; alternative fuel activists on non-profit salaries lobby politicians; mid-western governors mandate E85; millions are spent on “flex-fuel” car advertising; Team Ethanol NASCAR races cars; farmers invest in farmer-owned bio-refineries. When the risks of the technology wane and the last easy-and-cheap-access drops of oil are pumped from the ground, the champions of “technological transformation” and “resilient wealth” will come around to ethanol. They will look to the money to be made in fertilizers and ethanol processing–and perhaps owning bio-refineries outright in competition with ADM and Cargill. Perhaps they’ll buy ADM or Cargill.

Ooh, la la! This is what CEI is jabbering about. Transformation (like transforming corn into ethanol) means resilient wealth for corporations, but not necessarily for farmers. It means a ‘free market’ that drags its feet…holds out a hand for subsidies…supports import tariffs…blocks stricter CAFE standards…and drives farmers and nature to the bottom. Rising like cream on corn-based ethanol profits–after years of obstruction–the likes of ExxonMobil will, in turn, funnel funds to the likes of CEI or some other ‘free market’ chirper to advertise the wonders of unfettered consumption, transforming technologies and resilient wealth. “Hooey on global warming, hooray for America’s birthright to consume,” it will exclaim. “Look at ethanol!”

Implausible? It’s a parable for making a market for cleantech, even for a technology like ethanol that fits neatly into the industrial systems. Imagine the difficulty in making markets for cleantech that does not transform but disrupts.

* CEI’s ad campaign looks even more like the corporate chimera it is when juxtaposed with a straightforward British Petroleum print ad: “Fuel made from corn adds less CO2 to the atmosphere. That’s biofuel for thought. In 2005, BP fuels contained more than 575 million gallons of biofuels in the U.S., eliminating about one million tons of carbon dioxide. It’s a start.”

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