So that’s why a comment by Brazil’s former agriculture minister, Roberto Rodrigues, caught my attention a while back: “We don’t want to sell liters of ethanol, we want to sell rivers.”
If his model for ethanol sales is the Amazon, then that’s a lot of ethanol.
This year, Brazil will produce about four billion gallons of ethanol–so much, in fact, that it recently has achieved oil self-sufficiency. To Americans worried about the economic problem of high prices at the pump as well as the security dilemma of a heavy reliance on oil imports from the Middle East, that’s an incredible and worthy feat.
As surely as the Amazon carries rainwater from the Andes to the Atlantic, Brazil’s success leads to a question: Can the United States accomplish something similar?
The answer is no. We aren’t Brazil. There are millions more of us. Our economy is much larger, and our thirst for oil is much greater. Plus, our agricultural climate cannot produce the massive sugarcane harvests that are behind Brazil’s ethanol revolution.
Yet, even if the United States can’t replicate what Brazil has done on the biofuel front, we have much to learn from their experience–and a lot of catching up to do if we’re serious about pursuing renewable energy.
The secret to Brazil’s success is sugarcane. If you’ve ever seen children eat candy and go crazy on a sugar high, it shouldn’t surprise you that filling a gas tank with ethanol derived from sugarcane will make your ‘flex fuel’ car go.
In the United States, only a small (but growing) fraction of the cars on the road today are flex fuel. In Brazil, by contrast, most of the new cars being sold today can handle E-85 ethanol. These drivers fill up their tanks far more cheaply than those who must rely solely on traditional fuel.
This didn’t happen by accident: It was the result of careful planning. Following the oil shocks of the 1970s, Brazil’s government wanted to reduce its dependence on foreign oil. So it created coordinated incentives for farmers to grow more sugarcane, automakers to produce ethanol-friendly vehicles, and consumers to kick their gas habits. By 1985, most of Brazil’s cars were ready for ethanol.
Then everything changed: The price of sugarcane rose, the cost of oil fell, and the government lost interest in the security issue. The economics of ethanol simply weren’t worth it. Just a few years ago, ethanol had almost no place in the lives of Brazilian motorists.
Today, however, the conditions are completely different. The economics of ethanol once again make sense, and the recent politics of the Middle East provide a sobering reminder about the risks attached to oil imports.
The result is that Brazil is now the world’s leader in ethanol production.
In the United States, we simply can’t match Brazil’s sugarcane production. Outside of states along the Gulf Coast and Hawaii, the climate just isn’t right for that crop.
But we can grow corn, plus other plants that will serve as sources of ethanol. Unfortunately, corn is more expensive than sugarcane to turn into fuel. Combined with the problem of our economy’s much greater demand for energy, this means that the United States simply can’t duplicate the Brazilian triumph of oil self-sufficiency.
Yet we can do better than we’re doing right now, especially if we adopt a mix of the policies that have brought Brazil to the place where it is today. We may also want to consider looking at the overall effect of global tariffs on energy.
Perhaps we can even reach the goal that President Bush set for us earlier this year: Replacing three-quarters of our Middle East oil imports with ethanol by 2025.
For some, that may sound like a tall order. But consider the alternative: growing global demand for nonrenewable fossil fuels that come from a chronically unstable part of the world.
To me, embracing ethanol sounds like floating down a river, along the path of least resistance.
Bill Horan, a Board Member for Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org) grows corn, soybeans and grains on a family farm in Northwest Iowa. Bill Horan actively supports the biofuels industry.