There’s a new fractured history lesson on ethanol hitting the blogs.
These commentaries say that the Nazis commandeered “the entire European potato crop in 1944 and turn(ed) it into ethanol to fuel V2 rockets.” So people starved in order to feed the German rocket program. The historical lesson, they say, is that we are “driving down much the same road with the current ethanol program in America.”
But is the premise remotely realistic? Could the entire European potato crop have been turned into V2 rocket fuel?
In fact, V2 rockets used several fuels, including about 900 gallons of ethanol each. The 3,000 rockets in the V2 program would have consumed about 2.7 million gallons overall, made from about 140,000 tons of potatoes. This was only a tiny fraction of the 40 million tons of potatoes harvested in Germany in 1944, which was a pretty bad year for potatoes, among many other things.
So the basic claim doesn’t make any sense at all.
More importantly, there are other lessons from the World War II era that illustrate a need to keep alternative sources of energy and strategic materials under domestic control.
For instance, in 1942, then-Senator Harry Truman’s investigating committee found that the US oil industry had been working with Germany’s I.G. Farben to deliberately block the development of synthetic rubber from petroleum.
The government reacted by demanding that the oil industry replace its leadership. While the oil industry floundered, heroic American farmers patched together an ethanol industry that provided the basic feedstock for non-petroleum rubber. By D-Day, three quarters of the tires on Allied jeeps and aircraft originally came from Midwestern corn fields. If we had waited for the oil industry, the liberation of Europe could have taken another year or more.
It’s true that the current corn ethanol fuel industry has problems. Many of the criticisms are appropriate and well meant. Others are not, and there isn’t space here to go into all of the debate here.
The most important point is that an emerging US biofuels industry is currently in the process of shifting away from corn to non-food sources like cellulose.
Before we close down this US-based biofuels industry, we need to consider the facts and think about the national interest. What’s the historical record? Just what has the modern oil industry done to liberate America from dependence on the world’s least stable sources of energy? Anything?
The emerging US biofuels industry will be sorely needed when another series of oil shocks hit home. At that moment, we will be reminded once again that those who don’t learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.
If we are wise enough, we can remember those lessons now, while there is still time.