Thursday, June 12, 2008

Brazil's "Dirty" Little Energy Secret

I know you've probably heard it: "If Brazil can do it, why can't we?"

That kind of comment is about the fact that Brazil has "grown" itself out of its requirement of any foreign oil. It has done this by switching to ethanol that is derived from their own, home-grown sugar cane crops. But is it true? If you listen to those anti-oil partisans in this country, you would think Brazil has "no more need" for oil in their country. If true, would someone explain to me why their partly state run oil company just let $4.1 billion contract to build 3 offshore oil platforms to get more "oil" for their economy (See Full Story).

The fact is that Brazil compliments its own oil production with ethanol. Their cars run on E85. E85 doesn't mean that all their cars are running completely off of ethanol; only 85 percent of the the fuel is and "can be" ethanol. The remainder is oil. So, they still need to drill. That's the "dirty" little secret on Brazilian energy that nobody in this country wants to admit.

In this country, even if we completely converted all of own corn crops to ethanol production, we would only replace about 15 percent of the gasoline we use today. Additionally, We would be maxed-out on ethanol from corn; even though our fuel requirements would continue to grow as our population grew. Of course, that would leave us (and much of the world) "without" any corn as human and animal feed and bi-products such as corn oil and starch for cooking and some environmentally attractive plastic products.

The United States is not Brazil and, for those people like Bill O'Reilly (on Fox Cable Ness) and several politicians, we cannot grow ourselves out of oil. To understand this, you must understand that Brazil is uniquely suited as a major agricultural country in this hemisphere. First, Brazil is nearly as large as the contiguous 48 states of the United States. It has half the population of the United States and 5 times the available agricultural land than the United States. Except for the semiarid regions in the north, they have 10 times the amount of water resources than we do in the support of their agriculture. Because of temperate winters in their farming areas, they have a longer and warmer growing season. But, most importantly, they have the near tropical conditions that allow them to grow sugar cane which is more easily (more cheaply) and more effectively converted to ethanol.

Our push for ethanol has just resulted in record high corn prices in this country. Brazil has excess ethanol production and would gladly export it to the United States but our Congress, in an effort to protect higher-and-higher corn prices for our domestic farmers, has seen fit to impose tariffs on any imported ethanol. This is literally killing the poor by creating high food prices and higher energy prices. (I guess the farmer's votes for the Democrats are more important than food and fuel for our citizens!)

Whether we like it or not, we need to develop parallel energy paths to rid ourselves of our energy problem. We need to explore and develop new oil for the 145 million cars we have on our roads today that are designed to run on gasoline and which will be on the road for, at least, an average of 9 years. At the same time, we can develop new technologies that will get us away from oil. Further, we should begin importing ethanol from Brazil so that our food prices in this country don't continue to get out of the reach of the poor.

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