Kim Puzey wrote an op-ed piece that reflects some of the discussions going around in the popular press these days. He clearly has some first-hand knowledge of building and operating biofuel facilities and his perspective is important.
But technology and investment is changing rapidly and dynamically. What was true even a year ago is different today.
For example, a 2008 Argonne National Laboratory report noted that between 2001 and 2006, ethanol production in the U.S. increased 276 percent.
During that five-year period water consumption-usage in ethanol processing declined 27 percent, grid electricity use went down 16 percent and overall energy use declined 22 percent. At the same time, ethanol output per unit of feedstock (primarily corn) input increased 12 percent.
In my book, those are fairly impressive accomplishments. And in the process, the nation now has 6 percent of its fuel supply from a domestic renewable resource.
To a great extent, the rise in petroleum fuel prices have enabled ethanol and other biofuels to gain a stronger footing in the marketplace. It is also true that incentives and renewable fuel standards have helped.
And, it is further true that petroleum dominance in the marketplace is the result of many years of political (government) maneuvering, incentives, tax benefits and even military help.
Further, another recent study indicates that record high oil prices, having increased threefold in the past eight years, are driving ethanol prices and corn prices, not the other way around.
The study said when crude went from $40 to $120 a barrel, corn went from $2 a bushel to $6 a bushel, a tripling of both prices. About $1 of the corn price increase was due to the subsidy and $3 to the higher crude price. Even if the government subsidy for ethanol were eliminated, corn prices would not return to levels of a decade ago, it said.
The U.S. exported more corn in 2007 than any other year in history - at the same time as there was record use of corn for livestock feed, and record use of corn in ethanol. This all from the largest corn crop in history.
Increased demand increases price, no doubt, but which demand is driving the price increase, and how to sort out the influence of oil? And does the increase in corn price really have much to do with food prices?
A World Bank report points to 10 issues that have contributed to rising world hunger, agricultural problems, distribution and trade concerns, and factors affecting food prices. Biofuels is mentioned as one factor.
Total world agricultural land dedicated to biofuel crop usage in 2007 was equivalent to about 1 percent of grain acreage (wheat, rice, corn, oilseeds including soy and canola, triticale, etc.).
It would be an even smaller percentage of ag lands if we included fruits and vegetable production, trees and nuts, grazing lands, etc.
The fact is, biofuel use of both cropland and crops themselves are a minuscule part of world agricultural production. To suggest they are affecting foods on a large scale is ludicrous.
Biofuels alone won't solve our nation's transportation fuel needs.
I, nor the Oregon Department of Agriculture, have ever suggested such. But they already are providing nearly 6 percent of our fuel supply and reducing gasoline prices 30-40 cents below what they would otherwise be.
Biofuels are part of the solution. So are many other things, like hybrids and increased mileage efficiency, mass transit, better shipping methods, and so forth.
It will take many approaches.
Brent Searle is special assistant to the director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture.