Jamaica’s Rear-View-Mirror Planning

Jamaica’s well-intentioned oil exploration initiative is likely to be a waste of time and money. And in my opinion, it’s an example of rear-view-mirror planning.

I know oil is expensive. Who doesn’t? And I know Jamaica would save a lot of precious foreign exchange if it could produce some of its own fuel. But there is little evidence that viable oil or natural gas deposits exist in or around Jamaica. People have been looking for oil in Jamaica for as long as I can remember, and I have yet to hear of anyone getting lucky.

Meanwhile, developed countries are desperately trying to wean themselves from their dependence on petroleum. All over the world, vehicle manufacturers are desperately searching for alternatives to petroleum based fuels. Oil is the elixir of the past. We should be planning for the future.

And one answer to Jamaica’s fuel hunger may be right under our nose: sugar cane. Jamaica is a natural producer of sugar cane. It grows like grass because it is grass.

There was a time, long ago before the emergence of beet sugar, when Jamaican plantations filled the coffers of the British gentry. In those days, it was the sweat of slaves that fueled sugar production. Today, efficient machines are available. Sugar cane could once again sweeten the Jamaican economy.

Companies like Petrojam Ethanol and the Jamaica Broilers Group are blazing the trail toward more rational fuel use. But they could use some help.

We need look no farther than Brazil to find an example to follow. After the 1973 oil crisis sent the world reeling, the Brazilian government responded by emphasizing ethanol production and consumption. The program included high taxes on gasoline and subsidies to ethanol producers, as well as a government mandate requiring gasoline to be at least 25 per cent alcohol.

The result is a national ethanol industry that has sharply reduced Brazil’s dependence on foreign oil. Over the years, the number of cars in Brazil that run on gasoline has shrunk drastically. And, ethanol-fueled cars sold in Brazil don’t cost any more than traditional gas-guzzlers.

In addition to saving the environment, Brazil’s ethanol initiative has produced another benefit: Motorists are saving money. Although ethanol gets about 25 percent lower mileage than gasoline, it usually sells at somewhere between a third to half of the price of gas.

Because Brazil produces more sugar cane than any other county in the world, the government decided to base its ethanol program on the fast-growing grass.

Sugar cane is just one of many Jamaican farm products from which ethanol can be made. Another is cassava, about the hardiest crop I know. You can grow cassava in areas like Pedro Plains, where (if my memory can be trusted after all these years) the average rainfall is about 10 inches a year. But one of the neat features of using sugar cane to produce ethanol is that we don’t have to burn oil in the process. We can burn the bagasse (the trash that’s left after the juice is squeezed out) to provide heat for distillation and electricity to run the machinery. The surplus electricity can even light our homes and run our factories.

Burning bagasse is a lot easier on the environment than burning oil or coal. Cane trash contains no sulfur and burns at relatively low temperatures, producing little nitrous oxide. In Brazil, bagasse is even replacing oil in some factories.

In a column published in The Gleaner recently, Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said his country’s 30-plus years of successful experience in producing fuels shows that it is possible to combine energy security with “broad economic, social and environmental benefits, without detriment to food production.”

“By adding 25 per cent ethanol derived from sugar cane to gasoline and using pure ethanol in flex-fuel cars, we have reduced by 40 per cent both our consumption and our imports of fossil fuels,” he said. “Since 2003, we have avoided emissions into the atmosphere equivalent to more than 120 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, thus assisting in combating global warming.”

President da Silva reported that the ethanol industry has already created 1.5 million direct jobs and 4.5 million indirect jobs in Brazil.

“Our biodiesel program, still in its initial stage, already employs more than 250,000 Brazilians, mainly small farmers in economically depressed semi-arid zones, generating income and contributing to a better balance between rural and urban areas,” he added. “Thus the program addresses issues related to lessening the migration to already overcrowded cities and works to diminish urban exclusion. Biofuels assist in the fight against hunger by generating income that allows poor people to buy food.”

And he made the point that the expansion of sugar cane cultivation contributes to the restoration of areas of degraded pasture, which otherwise have little or no agricultural potential.

“Ethanol and biodiesel offer genuine sustainable growth options. Aside from creating jobs and income in the agricultural export sector, they open the doors to establishing local biochemical industries that produce technological development and play a value-adding role,” President da Silva said.

The Jamaican Government has been moving in the right direction recently. Examples include a plan to ensure that gasoline includes 10 per cent ethanol by 2008. Also, officials have been urging Jamaican sugar cane farmers to increase production, in order to capitalize on the market for ethanol. But we can do more.
A recent study conducted by the National Commission on Science and Technology recommended that the government provide tax breaks and soft loans to encourage investment in the production of ethanol and electricity from sugar cane. That makes a lot of sense.

Resurgence in the sugar industry would be far more exciting that the prospect of finding oil. Think of the mess that a petroleum industry would produce. Our leaders should take a trip to Newark, New Jersey, to witness first-hand how ugly oil tanks can be.

Who would want our beautiful skyline disfigured by oil derricks, or our glorious beaches swamped by oil spills? Not me, for one.

George Graham is a Jamaican-born journalist and author who has worked as a reporter in the Caribbean and North America for more than half a century. He lives in Lakeland, Florida. His books, “Hill-an’-Gully Rider” and “Girlie: A Love Story,” are available at http://stores.lulu.com/georgeg.

About the author

George Graham