Published: April 25 2008 19:31 Financial Times, last updated: April 25 2008 19:31
In 1959, after years of lobbying from Texas oil men, President Dwight Eisenhower imposed a quota on US crude oil imports. The idea of the world’s biggest oil importer putting up barriers to keep out foreign crude now seems ludicrous. With fuel shortages looming, the quotas were abandoned by Richard Nixon in spring 1973.
Yet the arguments marshalled in support of the quotas are all too familiar. Protecting the domestic industry was vital to national security, the oil men said: America needed to invest in production capacity in case foreign supplies were cut off.
Today, the US ethanol industry is running its campaign out of the same playbook: there is a lot of talk about energy security and producers are protected by a 54 cents a gallon import tariff. In the European Union, the focus is more on the supposed environmental impact, but the results are similar: the industry is also protected by a tariff and further import restrictions are being talked about in Brussels.
The combined crisis of food prices soaring as oil reached almost $120 a barrel this week should be the decisive signal that those policies are no longer tenable.
Biofuels such as ethanol are not the only reason, or even the main reason, that food prices are rising. The International Monetary Fund thinks the use of crops such as corn for biofuels accounts for only about 20 per cent of the rise in prices over the past couple of years; other estimates suggest the effect is even smaller.
But it is clear we have moved into a new era, in which food prices and fuel prices are tied more closely than ever before. That realisation has led some environmental groups – among them those, such as Friends of the Earth, who were among biofuels’ biggest cheerleaders only a few years ago – to urge policymakers to stop the growth of biofuels.
Some politicians, with Gordon Brown, the UK prime minister, in the vanguard, have responded to these concerns by calling for a rethink of biofuels policy. Targets for the EU to meet 10 per cent of its fuel demand from biofuels by 2020 and for the US to have 36bn gallons of “renewable” fuels in its consumption by 2022 now look at risk.
Yet putting a brake on the expansion of biofuels is not an easy way out. At $120, the oil price has almost doubled in the past year. It is an extra problem that a fragile world economy really does not need, and abandoning biofuels would make it worse.
High oil prices are a sign that the balance of supply and demand is very tight. Policymakers can help curb demand: the new fuel economy standards for cars in the US will be a step in the right direction, although their effect is likely to be modest. Higher fuel taxes would be better: the call from John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, for the federal petrol tax to be suspended over the summer is entirely counterproductive.
Changing demand patterns takes time, however, and while the world gets used to a permanently higher level of energy prices, there is a need for additional supplies.
Biofuels last year contributed about 1.3 per cent of world oil supplies: a small proportion, but still more than Indonesia, one of the earliest members of Opec, the oil producers’ cartel. Over the next few years, their contribution as a share of the increase in oil supplies is expected to be much greater. If that contribution were lost, the supply-demand balance would be even tighter and the oil price even higher.
The effect of cutting biofuels production could be to make food inflation even worse: higher oil prices push up the prices of fertiliser and transport, some of the biggest components of agricultural costs.
It seems policymakers are damned if they do back biofuels, and damned if they do not.
The deus ex machina favoured by many politicians, especially in the US, is “second-generation” biofuels, such as cellulosic ethanol, which can be produced from straw or other plant waste and so do not compete with food supplies.
The pious declarations of support for cellulosic ethanol amount to pure wishful thinking, however: it is nowhere in large-scale production. There is a lot of corporate and government-supported research and development under way, but even supporters of cellulosic ethanol reckon commercial viability could be five years off. Cynics say it always will be.
There is a solution, however: the US and Europe can open their markets to more Brazilian ethanol made from sugar cane. Brazil has the potential for huge growth in ethanol production on land today used as pasture, where the impact of expansion on either food supply or deforestation would be small.
Brazilian ethanol is not the whole answer, but it can help, and other low and middle-income countries could with the right support also develop biofuels industries in ways that need not necessarily compete with food supplies.
Having opened the floodgates to foreign oil, Nixon had a change of heart after the Arab oil embargo. By the end of 1973, he was evoking the spirit of the moon landings and the Manhattan Project as he called for the US to make itself self-sufficient in energy by the end of the decade.
That bold initiative failed, of course; as all attempts at energy independence are doomed. If there is one good thing that can come out of the food and fuel crisis, it should be the recognition of that reality.
Apart from the Olympics debate, the food and oil crisis is definitely one of the more heated topics on the western newspaper lately. The problem here being, has the surge in food prices been caused by the use of biofuel? The logic here is that because more farmland is used to grow biofuel-making crops, less is used to grow food crops. Some insisted it has been so, while others say yes but the use of biofuel is not the main factor. Those who are crying out 'NO' usually go with an alternative answer that the soaring oil price is the culprit because it increases the costs of transportaion and fertilizers, which are both significant part of food costs.
There is no settlement by now on which side is correct. And probably such a settlement will never come. Nonetheless, there are some questions that are left almost completely undiscussed, at least not in the media or public, about the food, energy and perhaps also environmental crisis that we are facing here.
1) Is biofuel beneficial for the environment to make it worth the fuss?
- Some biofuel-making crops were grown on land that was originally rainforest, which is carbon-reducing.
- Some biofuel was produced by using coal-fuelled plants, which are very carbon-enhancing.
- The use of biofuel apparently has enhanced the overall global energy supply, which helped keep the oil price down and its consumption up.
2) How are those in the developed countries responding to the negative impact of use of energy on the environment?
- Norway has recently struck a deal with an African country that more trees would be planted on the African country whenever Norway consumes too much energy -- similar to the process Clean Development Mechandism.
- US Presidential candidate John McCain talked about cutting taxes on petrol in US during the summer, which will definitely drive up oil consumption if enforced.
3) How are those in the developed countries responding to the food crisis, which has been killing a lot of people in the developing countries?
- the US is still heavily subsidizing their farmers, which has essentially pushed up food prices
- of course, people are still wasting a whole lot of food in the developed countries
- most developed countries are not meeting the even half of their aid target, not to say match the currently increasing food price with an increase in aid
Ya, so those in the developed countries, like everybody else on the earth, are facing food, energy and perhaps also environmental crisis here. But let's not cut on our own consumption of food and energy, let's do the following,
- Transfer the carbon burden to the developing countries because the richer guys can buy out the poorer guys, which of course including buying out their environment
- Keep producing biofuels because the developed countries neither want to cut energy consumption nor do they want to invest heavily in real clean and renewable energy
- Keep unfreeing our gluttony because the developed countries cannot physically afford not to consume so much food and can financially afford the food anyway
- Protect corporate farmers from international competition through tariff or subsidies or both and push the food prices further, nevermind, who in the developed countries actually cannot afford the food? (indeed, some really cannot afford, but they are not counted while we are talking about the developed countries)
My rough guess: our problem now is with our mentality, we, in the developed countries, do not think at all we are consuming too much of food or energy.