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By Robert Rapier on May 24, 2006 with no responses

Rapier Second Response to Miglietta

In Joseph’s second response, he didn’t bring up new material related to ethanol that wasn’t addressed in my first response. He did bring up some other issues that are worth addressing, but this response will be briefer than my initial reply. Joseph’s responses are in block quotes below.

JM: Mass transportation has been around with us even before the advent of personal vehicles. I find mass transportation acceptable as a free choice but not as an imposing substitution to our personal vehicle. If the time came that we no longer have this choice, then I consider we reached a point of regression; we have failed in our ability to make technological advancement. But I consider our resourcefulness inextinguishable.

The problem is that we just don’t have an energy-dense fuel like oil with which to power our society. We are withdrawing deposits that were made over eons of time, and we aren’t replenishing them. From my viewpoint, the post-oil world is going to enforce a drastically reduced energy budget for everyone. Governments can delay the day of reckoning by adopting aggressive policies to encourage conservation.

JM: First of all, there is still a lot of oil underground to sustain our needs for a few more decades. In the meantime, we’re making progress.

There will still be oil in the ground in a few decades. However, we won’t be able to get it out fast enough nor economically enough to sustain our present energy desires, especially given the growth in China and India. After all, oil production in Texas peaked in 1970, and 36 years later there is still oil underground in Texas. But it isn’t nearly enough to sustain Texas. Oil from the tar sands fields of Canada is now flowing south into Texas.

JM: In my opinion I believe, you use a negative approach: we must conserve, you say, “because we simply can’t get the energy we need. No alternatives can meet our current energy desires.” We must conserve, while our efforts in finding alternative fuels are intensifying.

In my opinion, I am using the realistic approach. You hold out hope that fusion will come online and save the day. Or, barring that, some other alternative is out there, and just needs to be discovered. Fusion may some day prove to be viable, but we can’t depend on it to mitigate the liquid fuel shortfall that is happening even now.

I say with confidence that our society will never find an alternative liquid fuel with the economic advantages of petroleum. The solar energy of many years of plant growth was captured, and heat from the earth was added to the mix as it was buried. Nobody had to plant it, and nobody had to harvest it. The earth was the chemical reactor that heated and compressed the plants, turning them into an energy dense mixture. Each year we make withdrawals from the fossil fuel bank that can’t be replenished any time soon. In the past 260 years, we have burned the equivalent of 13,300 years of the entire earth’s plant material. (1)

But in the future, we are going to have to rely on short-term deposits to sustain us. This is going to mean we are going to have to learn to reduce our energy consumption, and probably spend a substantial amount more of the world’s manpower in creating the energy needed to sustain society.

JM: As in the past, when there is a need, we will fill it with better product(s). Liquid fuel is our most immediate and practical approach, even if this alternative fuel has less energy than gasoline.

The critical issue is not how much energy the alternative contains, but how much energy it takes to make it, and where that energy comes from. We could convert our society to run on a fuel with 1/10th the energy density of gasoline, if the energy inputs required to make it were low enough.

JM: There is no need to discuss any further the disadvantage offered by producing ethanol, its energy balance, farm land availability in our country, etc. Ethanol, however, is a starting point.

My argument in discussing all of ethanol’s disadvantages, which you did not address, goes to demonstrate that ethanol is a really poor starting point. As I pointed out, we would be better off just using the natural gas that goes into making ethanol and power vehicles directly from that.

JM: The oil companies are now pressed for ethanol. What we need is to reassure the farmers that importing ethanol will not go against their interests—a quota system should be established to import only the ethanol they cannot produce.

The time has come to stop coddling ALL of these special interests, and start implementing policies that will be benefit our children and grandchildren. We have to take the long view. Failure to do so is why we find ourselves in the present situation.

JM: In my view, this report from Argentina is groundless and serves political purposes, since Argentina is not in the same conditions as Brazil both for oil and for ethanol.

To be clear, that report was a story that was written by David Victor, the director of the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development at Stanford University. It was merely reprinted in an Argentinean newspaper.

With that, I think I will conclude. My objections to ethanol from my previous essay were not addressed, so there is no need to continue reiterating those points. If Joseph would like to offer up a closing statement, I will post it. Otherwise, I appreciate the exchange of ideas.


1. Kruglinski, Susan, “Discover Data: What’s in a Gallon of Gas?”, Discover, April 2004.