"Don't forget the energy used to transport the ethanol to blending plants, because it can't be mixed in at large refineries and shipped through pipelines as blended gas. This looks like a completely uneconomical mess to me."
Yes we are a ways off from a viable solution but even at 3.00 a gallon we are better going this route then getting tangled up in the ME every time some crazy dictator pops up. Also, their is a huge benefit to employ high and low level tech employees, the farming industry would boom and we would take advantage of a hundreds of millions of acres of unused land. Ethanol is really only the solution to automobiles, our trucking fleet can run on diesel from soy, easily growable in the south en masse. It's going to take years and we had better get our asses in gear.
Just an observation of what I saw in Brazil...There are many local ethanol refineries spread throughout the country side. They are small compact units. I realize it is sugar cane, but same thing could apply here. Transportation costs would reduce as more refineries are built. It also reduces the exposure to terrorist attacks on one large refinery concentration such as Houston, TX. It also reduces the exposure to weather related catastrophies (like hurricanes, etc...)
"Ethanol is really only the solution to automobiles..."
It doesn't look like an economically viable solution for the long term. It takes too much energy and ground water to grow the crops and refine the ethanol. I would bet a considerable amount of money that in the year 2056 we will be driving two kinds of cars: 1) for short trips under 100 miles, we'll use battery-powered electric cars or battery/gasoline hybrids that run primarily on nuclear electric power, and 2) for long trips over 100 miles we'll use gasoline powered cars or gas/electric hybrids with much more efficient gasoline engines than we have today. (Only problem is I will probably not be around in the year 2056 to collect on this bet.)
This ethanol program looks like more of a political horse-trading deal designed to pump up the economy in the farm belt. If we REALLY want to lessen our dependence on ME oil for the long term, we have to build more nuclear power plants. Nuclear power produces enormous amounts of energy from small amounts of nuclear fuel at very low cost. Eventually we will have to build more nuclear power plants because we won't be able to produce enough natural gas to run all those gas power plants. Natural gas reserves get used up over time and eventually there will be no alternative to nuclear power. So let's stop all the political pandering to environmental groups and get on with nuclear power. I think the political background for nuclear power is starting to change: I saw last week that somebody in Greenpeace is now supporting nuclear electric power.
I used to agree to everythingyou posited, but now I'm not sure about this line. If W's strategery turns out to be correct (we won't know for 5-10 years), then we'll have to play an active part in the rest of the worl to keep all the nutcase breeding grounds in the ME cleaned out. Had we cleaned up Afghanistan ahead of time, UBL might not have gottn the WTC events off.
Anyway, I'm ok with "biofuel" fads, but even if we had tech to run the entire economy off "cold peanut fusion" or something, we'd still have to keep the ME'ers on the road to prosperity since the only leaders they have want to train them to strap bombs on and dance with Israelis or New Yorkers....