Art Cullen

Brazil Has It Figured Out

Brazil imports 3% of its energy needs. The United States imports more than 40%. About 40% of Brazil's energy is supplied by ethanol. About 3% of the US energy needs are filled by ethanol. It's an interesting juxtaposition. Another interesting fact: No Brazilian soldier has died in Kuwait or Iraq or any other conflict-plagued oil state. Brazil does not suck up to Saudi Arabian royal despots.

Brazil's population is roughly two-thirds the size of the United States, and is slightly smaller in land mass. Brazil finds that ethanol can fuel a great deal of its vehicle fleet. During the oil crisis of the 1970s (which never really ended, obviously) Brazil decided it would not be held hostage to Middle Eastern terrorists and oil cartels. So it decided to wean itself, and has succeeded.

The Los Angeles Times published a tremendous story on the topic June 15. Almost all the cars in Brazil are flex-fuel; that is, they all can run on 85% ethanol. The result: E85 is sold everywhere. It is sold for about half the price of regular unleaded gasoline.

Why not the US?

First, the oil companies have run a misinformation campaign against renewable energy because they don't own it, and some environmental hacks have bought into the story.

Second, says Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, inertia keeps progress in check. Detroit has not pushed flex-fuel cars because it has not. If the auto industry is in such dire straits, one would think that flex-fuel would be something to sell. Harkin would like to mandate that every car sold is flex-fuel capable.

We are beginning to wake up as Brazil did 30 years ago. The Senate on June 16 passed, on a 70-26 vote, a mandate that the petroleum industry must blend at least 8 billion gallons of ethanol by 2012. We currently produce about half that much.

Of course, increased ethanol production would be a short-term boon to Iowa, the national leader in ethanol. But corn isn't the only stuff from which ethanol can be made. Brazil uses sugar cane. Technology is emerging in producing energy from cellulose such as corn stover or switchgrass. Ethanol can be made anywhere in the US.

The critics say that ethanol receives inordinate government subsidy. Harkin points out that the true cost of gasoline, including direct subsidies and the cost of defending the Persian Gulf, is about $7 per gallon.

Eventually the private sector will embrace renewable fuels if government primes the pump. The LA Times reports about Brazil: "Private investors are channeling billions of dollars into sugar and ethanol production, creating much-needed jobs in the countryside. Environmentalists support the expansion of this clean, renewable fuel that has helped improve air quality in Brazil's cities. Consumers are tickled to have a choice at the filling station."

The oil lobby has greased Congress. It is also worth noting, as the Wall Street Journal did on June 16, that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas owns up to $100,000 worth of stock in Exxon Mobil. Rep. Chip Pickering of Mississippi, vice chair of the House Energy Committee, owns up to $500,000 in oil stocks. The chairman of the House Energy Committee, Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, watched his oil stocks rise 800% in value over the past three years. Every time renewable energy bills get tied up, the dirty work is done in the House. And we wonder why.

Ethanol is not about helping corn growers or saving the environment. Ethanol is about getting off the oil jones and getting our foreign policy free of Middle East entanglements. So long as we depend on sheiks for the fuel that drives the United States, we will watch soldiers die for the politics of Big Oil.

Art Cullen, managing editor of The Progressive Populist, lives in Storm Lake, Iowa. Email:

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