If Brazil Can Do It…
Last October, former president Bill Clinton was in California stumping for Proposition 87, an alternative energy initiative. Clinton declared that the initiative (which failed) would “move California toward energy independence with cleaner fuels, with wind and solar power.” He continued, “There are people who don’t believe you can do it. I do. Look at Brazil. Don’t you think you can do it if they did it? They run their cars on ethanol.” Clinton later provided a soundbite for the pro-Proposition 87 forces in which he declared, “If Brazil can do it, so can California.”
During a 2005 speech to the National Press Club, Pennsylvania governor Edward Rendell said, “No longer is investing in alternative fuels a fringe idea….Brazil is perhaps the world’s greatest success story. Due to 30 years of hard work, research, and investment, Brazil will not need one drop of imported oil this time next year. If anyone suggests to you that these ideas aren’t ready for prime time and cost too much, they are living in the past.”
Clinton and Rendell are among a carload of American politicians who have pointed to Brazil as the country to imitate when it comes to energy policy. But being like Brazil won’t be easy.
Being like Brazil means cutting consumption.
Politicos talk about Brazil’s freedom from imported oil. But they rarely mention the fact that Brazil’s oil consumption is relatively small: about 2.1 million barrels of oil per day, or about one-tenth of what is used by the U.S. The lack of domestic demand reflects the huge disparities between the countries in both population and vehicles. Brazil has 188 million people, but just 23 million automobiles. By comparison, the U.S. has about 300 million people and about 243 million motor vehicles. In fact, the U.S. has more motor vehicles than registered drivers. According to Cambridge Energy Research Associates, the U.S. has 1,148 registered personal vehicles for every 1,000 licensed drivers. Brazil, by contrast, has just 137 personal vehicles for every 1,000 licensed drivers. (India has 11 cars per 1,000, and China, just 9 cars per 1,000.)
The paucity of cars means that Brazil’s per capita oil consumption is just one-sixth that of the U.S. An average Brazilian uses about 0.5 gallon of oil per day, while the average American uses 3.
The U.S. could easily become oil independent like Brazil if only every American were to cut their oil consumption to 0.5 gallon per day. Should that occur, the U.S. would not only achieve oil independence, it would become an oil exporter. Under that scenario, the U.S. would use about 3.5 million barrels per day. Given that the U.S. produces 5.1 million barrels of crude per day, it would immediately become a net exporter, on par with Venezuela. And all it would take to achieve that is a federal mandate precluding Americans from driving, flying, or taking the bus in 6 days out of 7.
Being like Brazil means higher fuel prices.
Although American drivers love to complain about the price of gasoline, the U.S. has some of the cheapest motor fuel of any industrialized nation. By contrast, Brazilian motor fuel is expensive. Over the past decade and a half, Brazilian motorists have consistently paid higher taxes on their gasoline than their American counterparts, and those taxes have meant higher prices, which help reduce consumption. In 1993, Brazilians paid a total of $0.53 per liter while Americans paid $0.32. In 1998, they paid $0.80; Americans paid $0.32. In 2004, they paid $0.84; Americans paid just $0.54. In early May of 2007, drivers in S~ao Paulo were paying up to $1.38 per liter (about $5.22 per gallon); Americans paid about $0.82 per liter (about $3.09 per gallon).
How many U.S. politicians would be touting the wonders of Brazil if they were forced to admit that doing so would mean gasoline prices in excess of $5 per gallon? Probably not many.
Being like Brazil means investing in Iran.
While the U.S. continues its efforts to isolate Iran, the Brazilians, among others, are hurrying to Tehran to cut deals. In March, Petrobras signed a $470 million deal with the Iranians to explore for oil offshore in the Caspian Sea. The Iranians want to capitalize on the Brazilians’ technical prowess. And Brazil is so eager to get involved that it will operate without taking an equity stake in the project. Instead, it will be paid a share of any oil sold from the fields it develops. Petrobras is also drilling in Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf. The company is working with the Spanish firm Repsol-YPF on an exploration project in the Tosan block, a region of 6,300 square kilometers near the Strait of Hormuz.
During a March 31 visit to Camp David, Brazilian president Luiz In’acio Lula da Silva was asked about Petrobras’s investments in Iran. Lula responded: “Petrobras will continue to invest in oil prospecting in Iran. Iran has been an important trade partner for Brazil. They buy from us more than $1 billion [in goods and services per year].” He continued, “I know that there’s political divergence on this between Iran and other countries, but with Brazil, we have no political divergence with them, so we will continue to work together with Iran.”
For his part, George W. Bush, not wanting to ruffle any feathers, particularly in the wake of his trip to Brazil, refused to criticize Petrobras, saying only, “Every nation makes the decisions that they think is best in their interest. Brazil is a sovereign nation; he just articulated a sovereign decision.” Bush’s response makes it clear that the White House sees its alliance with Brazil, a critical part of Bush’s strategy to counter Hugo Ch’avez’s influence in Latin America, as a critical part of its foreign policy as well. And that relationship even overshadows the administration’s ongoing desire to isolate Iran.
Being like Brazil means making ethanol from sugarcane, and not from corn.
Brazilian ethanol gets lots of attention for a simple reason: it works. Brazil can produce ethanol at a profit because it uses sugarcane as a feedstock. Producing ethanol from sugarcane yields huge energy profits. While ethanol made from corn is at best a break-even proposition (1 Btu invested yields about 1 Btu in ethanol motor fuel) sugarcane has a net energy gain of 800 percent. Put another way, for each Btu invested in sugarcane ethanol, the return is about 8 Btus. And while sugarcane is the optimal feedstock for ethanol, it cannot be grown in large quantities in the U.S. for one simple reason: it requires a tropical or subtropical climate. In 2005, the U.S. grew just 25 million metric tons of cane. Brazil grew some 420 million tons, and India grew 232 million tons.
Brazil is the world’s biggest and most efficient producer of ethanol from sugarcane. Petrobras claims it can produce twice as much ethanol per acre as U.S. corn farmers, and at half the cost. And while that’s impressive, the amount of energy produced by Brazil’s sugar plantations is not, particularly when compared to oil. Even if the U.S. took all of Brazil’s ethanol production (assuming it could do so free of the $0.54 per gallon tariff), it would only provide about 215,000 barrels of oil per day, or about 1 percent of total U.S. oil consumption.
A couple of other numbers will show just how important ethanol is to Brazil’s overall energy picture. Petrobras wants to increase its ethanol production, storage, and transportation capabilities. Thus, by 2010, it will spend about $1.6 billion on new facilities and infrastructure to handle ethanol. That sounds like a lot of money until you consider that during that same time period, Petrobras will spend some $38 billion – about 24 times as much – on its oil exploration and production operations.