Fuel to grow Eastern farming

Wouldn’t it be great if the U.S. could manufacture enough fuel to power our cars, our factories, our generators and equipment? If the turbaned tyrants of OPEC were to lose their top customer and be left sitting on an arid sand pile?

Wouldn’t it be great if the U.S. could manufacture enough fuel to power our cars, our factories, our generators and equipment? If the turbaned tyrants of OPEC were to lose their top customer and be left sitting on an arid sand pile?

Yet the debate over ethanol, the most likely substitute for gasoline, has already lined up opposing spinmeisters. Agricultural interests of course are raring to go: Build more plants, plant more corn and other crops that form the heady alcohol fuel, they say. Economists say wait: It may take more fossil fuel energy to make a gallon of ethanol than the ethanol itself can produce.

Other critics say that ethanol production will eat up the nation’s grain supply (starch is the commodity most needed for ethanol) making bread and a host of other foods more expensive.

Market fact: A gallon of ethanol now traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange costs far less than a gallon of gas. The price varies, but this summer was as low as $1.70 per gallon.

But both sides seem to have forgotten the major card that America holds, and that is vast land resources. Over the past 50 years, agriculture in this country has concentrated in a few areas on the very best lands; Eastern agriculture, at one time a huge food producer, all but collapsed. To fly over the East Coast now is to see one enormous forest with the exception of a few areas like the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The 1940 aerial survey of the same area, however, shows a patchwork of fields and farms from Vermont to Florida, now gone.

To highlight the richness, the imbalance, the waste that now rules, one need only think of the economics of growing (with elaborate irrigation) a head of lettuce in California’s Central Valley and shipping it in diesel trucks to Eastern supermarkets — at a profit. Cheap fuel and subsidies made this absurd circuit possible.

The point is that the possibilities of these abandoned lands — now growing timber or simply overgrown — are enormous. Ethanol could revive Eastern agriculture, and with rising corn prices it will. Not only could this happen, but with modern land clearing and earth moving techniques it could happen quickly. This is not to mention new technologies that portend making ethanol and other alcohols out of wood chips, grasses, sugar cane, soybeans etc.

The dictates of the market are the same as those that have produced a huge boom in oil production in the Canadian oil-sands area of Alberta province. When the price is high enough, the incentive is there. Has everyone forgotten how at the tail end of World War II, the Germans kept their deplorable war machine running — on sugar beets, charcoal and vegetable oil?

Those who discount this country’s possibilities have never driven across its expanses.


CITY ON EDGE
D.C. mode: panic 24/7

A heavy rain front. A 16-wheeler skids across the Beltway. A tool in use in the basement of a government building sounds like gunfire. Such incidents in other capitals would barely ripple the surface.

But in Washington, any accident is a catastrophe, any traffic jam causes chaos, any snowstorm a blizzard, and if the incident happens near the Capitol itself, or at a school, the natural reaction is to shut down the whole system.

What’s the cause of this nearly certifiable behavior? I think former Mayor Marion Barry put his finger on it when he noted that over 300,000 people every day stream in and out of the city in their cars (without a commuter tax, he noted). It is this massive commuting force, utterly dependent on a dozen systems working smoothly, which has got us in a swivet.

But Barry (D) did not note the nature of these swarming masses. A large proportion are government workers, people ever equipped with rubbers and an umbrella, people averse to risk by nature, patient plodders of the bureaucracy. They are the rabbity backbone of this city.

They have two natural habitats: their fluorescent, air-conditioned offices, and their cars.

It isn’t just lack of alternate roads to the city. It’s mental. Washington is a jittery place, filled with unfounded fears that lead straight to our panic approach to life. First and foremost is the extent of suburbanization, a product of racism and fear of crime, which until recent years meant that anyone who could afford it lived outside the District, while a cash-strapped city had little money and less incentive to build transit infrastructure.

Second is the misuse of the interstate system, never intended for a commuter route or development corridor but becoming exactly that, luring thousands out into Virginia hinterlands with only one means of getting back.

Third, a corollary of the first, fear of mass transportation, a fear that without a personal car one may be trapped in (horrors) D.C. or forced to mix with strangers (probably black, perhaps criminal) on a bus or train.

What are the answers? Telecommuting is the most important, making mind- and paper-workers slave at home, coming to the hive but once a week. Encouraging slugging — the practice of sharing cars with strangers — by organizing it and placing signs. Making Route 1 into a real highway. Extending Metro with much cheaper light rail. Passing a congestion tax for cars in the central business district. But change the mind-set? Never.


CROPP OF HOUSES
Affordability hot buttons pressed

On a steaming Wednesday the day after the Washington monsoon, mayoral candidate Linda Cropp (D), chairwoman of the City Council, chose a tiny public library at 13th and H streets N.E. to unleash the latest in a rolling salvo of big plans — this one on affordable housing.

“They will come out one after another,” Cropp information aide Ron Eckstein said of the statements.

Cropp has wisely decided to launch a series of shots at her rivals in the form of “ambitious and detailed” plans. Education has already had the treatment. This was housing’s turn. The aim? To force her chief rival, Councilman Adrian Fenty (D-Ward 4), either to launch opposing schemes or to appear a weak copycat to her optimistic assessment of city needs.

“You’ve just got to have faith in this city,” Cropp told The Hill after the event, during which motorists tooted their approval of the lady in the red dress who dutifully sweltered before a microphone and a crowd consisting of more reporters than citizens.

Her message had little new, except promised subsidies for middle-income homebuyers, but she pledged to continue the policies of departing Mayor Anthony Williams (D) to build no more public housing for the poor. Instead the cry is all for mixed-income projects, like Capitol Hill Townhomes at 6th Street and the freeway. Her new twist includes various incentive plans to enable middle-income workers, making between $30,000 and $70,000, to buy in D.C.

She’ll strike deals with developers, offering higher density and other profitable tidbits, and in return get a guarantee that a proportion of the new project (“20, or 30 or even 50 percent,” she said) would be devoted to moderate-income earners.

More vague was a plan to “reserve corridors and neighborhoods” by mayoral decree as the place where the newly encouraged immigrants to the D.C. housing market would live. Right now, she admitted “over 55 percent” of city workers live out of the city, paying no tax to their workplaces.


Metro

•Charlie Palmer Steak, the superexpensive eatery ($200-plus, dinner for two) in the Brotherhood of Carpenters building at 101 Constitution Ave. N.W., joined Penn Quarter’s Capital Grille among top award winners of the 2006 Rammy Awards (Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington), hoisting the Hill’s reputation for fine dining. ...

• That controversial would-be charter school on 12th Street above Lincoln Park, Apple Tree School, has finally filed for a special exception to zoning rules, but antis say they will fight on. The Board of Zoning Adjustment may not hear the case for months. Pro-schoolers plan to argue that zoning rules now in place doom needed small schools convenient to neighborhoods. ...

• Ever wonder why security is so stranglingly tight at airports, but anyone with any portable object can hop onto Metrorail? Democratic members of the House Homeland Security Committee point out that just 1 cent is spent on subway security for every $9 on air safety — and subways carry far more people. ...

• Local horse lovers are pushing for an end to the little-known U.S. traffic in horsemeat, via a bill now before Congress. Three Belgian-owned slaughterhouses here sell 90,000 U.S. horses yearly for human consumption in France, Belgium, Japan, Holland and Italy. The horse groups want euthanasia to replace repellent slaughterhouse methods. ...

• The publishing schedule for The Hill this week prevents this column’s usual reporting on local July 4 activities, but once again, for the fifth year, the combination of overzealous security and the apparently endless construction of the Capitol Visitors Center rob local residents of the city’s finest platform from which to watch the great show. ...

• Will the Washington Nationals’ new stadium sit on a wasteland, or will a neighborhood of residences, shopping, offices and entertainment be built? Plans seem to be unraveling, as some vital acreage has not yet been bought; the D.C. City Council is about to take its summer break, and there’s confusion about the master plan, which is being managed from New York by Cooper, Robertson & Partners.