The Bio Fuels Bashing Blitz

September 17th 2007
Pete Collins

Is it just me are have you noticed all the bashing renewable fuels have been getting in the press lately?  Constructive criticism is a wonderful thing that most rational people welcome, but all the hammering of ethanol without the facts to substantiate many of these claims is at best the spreading of FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) - a well known marketing and political strategy. Why the new inclination to ratchet up the rhetoric, dogmatism, and agenda pushing against bio fuels?  Ask yourself, who really gets hurt by the emergence of alternative renewable fuels industry and less dependence on foreign oil? It is unfortunate that you can't talk about energy without addressing the geopolitical squawk and agenda mongering we see in the media today.

Currently the world is tied down to a single energy source which is supporting the entire world economy - that source is fossil fuel.  In the early days of oil, most of the oil extracted came from highly pressurized wells, so little effort was required to extract the oil and early auto makers opted to switch from alcohol derived fuels to this cheap and more abundant fuel source and forego ethanol which Henry Ford who designed the Model T to run on, said it was "the fuel of the future".  At that time, the typical ERoEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested) was about 100:1. As those wells became depleted, more and more effort was required to extract the oil. A typical ERoEI for oil is now about 10:1 (Saudi Arabia - 2006).  This number is steadily declining as we move towards depleting the planet of its oil reserves. Oil has had its day and crude as we see is continually getting harder and harder to extract and in turn more and more expensive at the pump. The potential impact of less and less oil to the world economy and industrialized society is huge as is professed by the "Peak Oil" crowd.

To simplify the very complex issue of the current state of world security, technological based societies are funding through petrol dollars the spread of radical Islamic ideologies which are obviously the greatest threat to world stability and prosperity - we are essentially paying for the rope to hang ourselves with. Without money, Saudi Arabia can't fund all of the madrassas across the globe that preach hatred towards the west, Iran can't fund its nuclear program, radicals can't afford weapons to wage their Jihadi war, pepper the region with propaganda, and so forth. Petrol dollars pay for this stuff and most people understand that. The logical way for the world to move towards a future of energy security and prosperity is to remove our dependence on foreign oil. For decades we have been forced to be energy consumers without the choice of any real alternative. Fossil fuel has had no serious competition as an energy source.

Environmentalist hate fossil fuels and today most people will agree the world needs to turn the corner on the path to a new diversified energy future and many are finally ready to embark on real change initiated by practical solutions. Bio fuels are part of this future. The need for security and environmental prosperity has pressured politicians to think practically about weaning ourselves off of fossil fuel. So how do they do this? The way any bureaucrat in Washington would, legislate for more money to spend and create new laws pandering and buying the votes they need to keep their constituents happy so they can get elected or reelected.  Oil has been subsidized and kept artificially low in price for a century so is there really anything new here? This is just politics as usual. I'm not sure why this is apparently so shocking to some journalists?

I think the recent rolling stone article "Ethanol Scam: Ethanol Hurts the Environment And Is One of America's Biggest Political Boondoggles," by Jeff Goodell has spawned the most recent trend in renewable fuels bashing - it's now cool to reiterate this article in the various clone articles I've seen lately and bash bio fuels. All the hand wringing of environmentalist about the evils of fossil fuel and "big oil" has now turned to the evils of "ethanol" and the corrupt "big corn lobby". Progressives are now embarked on the anti ethanol campaign or at least proxies aiding to undermine an emerging bio fuels industry that is rapidly growing and the only game in town right now who can take on their nemesis the "big oil" boys. 

Frustrated with all the recent bashing, I've decided to compile a short list of complaints about ethanol:

Food versus fuel

"Our current ethanol production represents only 3.5 percent of our gasoline consumption -- yet it consumes twenty percent of the entire U.S. corn crop, causing the price of corn to double in the last two years and raising the threat of hunger in the Third World."

First off, I already thought the third world was starving, so how is 20% of our corn being used to extract alcohol raising a threat of third world hunger when starvation has been upon us since pre-history? To my recollection, poor children have been starving in Africa my entire lifetime and bio fuels or not, it unfortunately doesn't look like the starvation is going to end anytime soon. This type of moral equivalence is an argument progressives like to bring out when they are sipping their $5.00 lattes to make themselves feel morally superior and important. This is dogmatism 101. The fact is, US crop supply is increasing to meet demand. 20% of the US corn crop means that a portion of our corn is going towards ethanol production, farmers have increased their corn crop production because there is now a new economic incentive to grow more corn and actually become profitable. Isn't it funny how Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and the eleven nations of OPEC also urge us to boycott ethanol? They curiously have a sudden philanthropic interest in the better good and helping the cause of world hunger by encouraging us to stick with importing the gasoline they sell to us.

Farmers making more money I must admit does have the devastating consequence of revenue flowing away from the middle east and other hostile regimes like Hugo and Iranian president Ahmadinejad, and back into the US economy I presume so radical fundamentalist farmers can now afford to purchase suicide bombs belts and pose a new threat to world security and stability and "undermine our food security". 

Why assumptions are made that the current state of an infantile and emerging bio fuels industry is stuck in the paradigm of corn only ethanol production?  Brazil for example uses sugar cane for their production of ethanol which is a more profitable implementation. Sugar cane has an ERoEI, of 9:1 while corn ethanol has an ERoEI of about 1.3:1. Profit motive and desire to decrease cost and become more competitive thus increasing margins as volume sales increase is the basis of any competitive industry. To espouse that the current state of this emerging industry is the way things will always be in the future is stunningly disingenuous or just plain naive. Profit motive and competition will always benefit the consumer who today is forced to purchase only petroleum derived fuels. Corn is one implementation in the emerging commercial production of bio fuels.  Large ethanol companies like Vera Sun are investing heavily in R&D for cellulosic technology so they can eventually become even more profitable.

All this talk of hog farmers using French fries to feed their pigs is utter nonsense. Where do you think the corn mass goes after the starch is extracted from the corn? The remaining output after distillation is a high protein livestock feed which producers are selling back to farmers.  Production output is Modified Distillers Grain, Dried Distillers Grain, Wet Distillers Grain, and Syrup. So this argument that corn is disappearing, pigs are starving causing pork prices to go up in China by 20% is utter propaganda or at least the latest OPEC talking point.

Or how about - "Ethanol is causing the price of tortillas in Mexico to rise".  Last I heard, tortillas use white corn, US ethanol uses yellow feed corn (the kind humans don't eat) to produce ethanol.  "Last year there was lower corn production in Mexico and the lack of import licenses has caused white corn shortages there." Maybe all the Mexican corn farmers have crossed the border to the US because corn is a more profitable business here. Regardless, the prospect that energy security and the energy independence of Western civilization can be trumped by the price of tortillas in Mexico is utterly ridiculous ...

Ethanol is bad for the environment

"When corn ethanol is burned in vehicles, it is as dirty as conventional gasoline and does little to solve global warming: E85 reduces carbon dioxide emissions by a modest fifteen percent at best."

"According to Argonne National Laboratories, ethanol production and use today reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 29%. Future ethanol production from cellulosic feedstocks holds the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 90% compared to gasoline. While addressing greenhouse gas emissions and global climate change, ethanol use reduces tailpipe emissions that cause air pollution and has prompted the American Lung Association of Metropolitan Chicago to credit ethanol-blended gasoline with reducing smog formation by 25%."

Even if burning fuel made from plants that store energy from the sun, are renewable, and feed on CO2, is as damaging as gasoline to the environment, which energy source plays a more important role in world security and stability? One we import and fight wars over, the other we grow here at home. Is this really an argument worth making?

"Ethanol makes no economic sense and is dependent upon government handouts to survive"

"This is Soviet-style central planning at its very worst. If ethanol were good for consumers and good for the planet, consumers wouldn't be forced to pay for it through their taxes and forced to buy it through legislation."

The state of a heavily subsidized farm industry has already been "Soviet-style central planning" where US corn farmers have been producing crops that are 23% below the cost of production to ensure a cheap food supply. Now all of a sudden farmers are getting paid for their crops based on real market demand, this in turn will foster a communist sate because there is political incentive to wean ourselves off of foreign oil? Seems like an argument fighting to sustain the status quo of farm subsidies and more "Farm Aid" concerts. Once again, sounds like Hugo and OPEC propaganda - "Don't fill up on bio-fuels because you will be supporting communism, instead remain a free and independent nation and import oil from us so we can use those petrol dollars to undermine your civilization". On second thought, that sounds pretty reasonable. Since the US is the world’s largest purchaser of crude, any reduction at all in purchasing can have devastating affects on the profiteering oil cartel.

"In 2006 alone, the production and use of nearly 5 billion gallons of ethanol generated more than $2.7 billion in new tax revenue for the federal treasury, more than $2.3 billion for state and local government coffers, and reduced those pesky farm program payments publications like Rolling Stone loathe by more than $6 billion. All told, the $2.5 billion investment the federal government made in ethanol tax incentives was returned to taxpayers fourfold."

"There is no such thing as a free market when it comes to energy. For a century, America's petrochemical complex has been the beneficiary of generous subsidies and preferential tax treatment that have allowed them to become the massive, multinational corporations they are today."

Ethanol gets poor mileage

"Its energy density is one-third less than gasoline, which means you have to burn more of it to get the same amount of power."

Yes this is true, it is also true ethanol has a higher octane than gasoline so you get a cleaner burn and a lot more power. That's why it's used as a racing fuel. FFVs are not optimized to run on E85, so they experience a 10-15% drop in fuel economy compared to gas.  I notice I get about 3 miles to the gallon less than when running on gas, the problem is my car is designed to run on gas because you can't get E85 everywhere like you can gasoline and the recent blitz of negative articles would like to ensure I can't get it at all.

Last year I purchased a Chevy Avalanche, fed up with feeling helpless as an American energy consumer and wanted somehow to help fight this war on radical Islam, I purchased a flex fuel vehicle so I can reduce burning fossil fuel in my car. E85 is really the only viable option I have. I've been lucky because in Colorado Springs where I currently live, there are some stations that provide E85.  My personal goal was that if I purchase only E85, I can help the cause of world stability and security by helping bankrupt the mullahs and madrassas by keeping most of my petrol dollars here in the US and supporting the US economy or at least friendly economies that are producing the Ethanol that is going into my gas tank. If China wants to keep the middle east in business that's fine by me as long as the worlds biggest consumer the US, is using less and less of this rapidly depleting resource. I see the world eventually moving towards a more diversified energy with recent breakthroughs like burning salt water for example - technology we can develop and one day export to other countries who at that point may be at war with each other scrambling for the last drops of remaining crude left on the planet.  But until more revolutionary breakthroughs in energy are made, consumers need more choice and bio fuel is one of them.

I think the problem is many people have embraced the misconception that ethanol is the only solution to our world energy problems. I have never made that assumption. Bio fuels are a transitional fuel that can help us bridge the gap between complete fossil fuel dependency and a new diversified energy future.  The less dependant we are on gasoline the better off we all are. Fossil fuel has had its day, let's give alternative fuels like ethanol the chance it deserves. It's interesting, we are actually at the point where the rubber is hitting the road towards a path to consumer choice and at this critical juncture in time we have an onslaught of opposition and out right disinformation. Is this effort designed to make us all feel good again about burning fossil fuel and continue funding to OPEC and hostile regimes?

Are bio-fuels going to solve all of the world’s energy problems? No, to think so is foolish.

Is it a step in the right direction heading towards a more prosperous and independent energy future? - You bet.