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By Robert Rapier on Mar 26, 2006 with no responses

Exchange with an Ethanol Advocate

I am working on a biodiesel post, but I am having an exchange with an ethanol advocate that is worth capturing here. Over at the blog 7 Deadly Sins, a number of fallacious arguments in favor of ethanol subsidies have been given. I responded, and this led to the exchange that I capture here.

I have become used to unsavory tactics by the pro-ethanol contingent. You wonder why such tactics are necessary, if their arguments are any good. This is also what happened following my testimony to the legislature against the ethanol mandate. People wanted to hurl insults and call names, but nobody was interested in engaging the facts.

Note that in the exchange, the following occurred:

1). Ad hominen argument right off the bat (implying that I am a “Big Oil shill”).
2). A false accusation that I am against alternative energy research.
3). A false accusation that I committed argumentum ad verecundiam.
4). A hand wave on the energy balance issue (said it isn’t important).
5). Brought up the cost of the war in Iraq (which he says he supports).
6). Concludes by repeating the ad hom, and then falsely says that I am just suggesting we should stick with Big Oil.

Exchanges like this fascinate me. What was missing from his response? He didn’t actually address my arguments. He made a number of false accusations, and demonstrated quite clearly that he engaged in very selective reading of what I wrote, but he did not address the arguments. He said he doesn’t believe the calculation from my first blog entry – that it takes over $4.00 of ethanol subsidies to displace a single gallon of gasoline – but he wasn’t willing to attempt a rebuttal.

Let’s hit 1-6 above, and then dissect his opening post a bit more.

Responses to 1-6 Above

1. Considering the time and energy I have devoted to alternative energy research, calling me a Big Oil shill is ludicrous. There will be certain issues over which my personal interests and those of my employer will coincide. Defeat of a grain-based ethanol mandate was one such issue. Had they asked me to go testify against a biomass ethanol mandate, or a biodiesel mandate, I would have refused. (Not that I am for mandates, but I can see true benefits in the case of biomass or biodiesel). Besides that, calling me a “Big Oil shill” is simply a way of telling readers not to pay attention to my arguments.

2. This is pretty funny, considering the amount of time I have spent doing alternative energy research. This was the topic of my thesis, after all. I strongly support alternative energy research. I don’t support throwing money into an endless black hole with no real benefits.

3. Let me provide a definition here: argumentum ad verecundiam: the fallacy of appealing to the testimony of an authority outside his special field. Anyone can give opinions or advice; the fallacy only occurs when the reason for assenting to the conclusion is based on following the improper authority. There are a couple of glaring problems here. First of all, this is my field. I didn’t make an appeal to an authority. Second, I supported my arguments with factual observations and calculations.

4. The energy balance issue is certainly important. First, if we use coal to make ethanol (or methanol), we have given up any pretense that this is an issue of renewable energy. (He says this doesn’t matter to him anyway). But the second thing is, we can use natural gas directly as a transportation fuel. Speeding up the rate at which we use it by making ethanol (and subsidizing the process!) is incredibly inefficient, and wasteful.

5. As I noted, I did not support going to war in Iraq. I would be willing to pay a much higher price for gasoline in order to keep us out of war. Note that I am not protesting the war, as we are already engaged. But I regret that we went to war, as I predicted it would not be over any time soon, and the cost in lives and money would be a lot higher than the administration had predicted. But we are there, and I support our troops.

6. Just another indication that he is interested in trying to force-fit my position into some predefined category. Unfortunately, he is trying to stick me into the wrong category.


Here are some responses to his initial posting. His comments are in italics:

Lots of my conservative brethren are fond of saying that the government should build roads and secure the country. Investing in an Ethanol infrastructure does both.

This claim is ironic, considering that the ethanol subsidy is paid for out of the Highway Trust Fund (1):

The 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) extended the costly excise tax exemption through 2007. In addition to the tax exemptions, three income tax credits are provided for alcohol fuels that are biomass derivatives (renewable resources) and used as fuel: the alcohol mixtures credit, the pure alcohol fuel credit, and the small ethanol producer’s credit. The tax exemptions have cost the Highway Trust Fund about $10.4 billion in needed revenues. Balances in both the highway and mass transit accounts will be depleted between 2003 and 2015, according to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office.

I submit that the consumers have no freedom now and cannot while a very few big oil companies control the price and supply.

That demonstrates a tremendous ignorance of the oil industry. ExxonMobil, the biggest public oil company in the world, controls something like 3% of global oil production. How on earth can they control oil prices? Is he implying collusion? If so, he needs to get on the phone and call the FTC. Of course the FTC has already found that collusion is not taking place (2).

Gasoline prices are increasing primarily because of market conditions, not collusion or other anti-competitive activities, according to a report released yesterday by the Federal Trade Commission.

“The vast majority of the FTC’s investigations have revealed market factors to be the primary drivers of both price increases and price spikes.”

Oil prices are set on the open market. Strong demand and tight supplies are why oil prices are as high as they are.

The impact of Katrina is nothing compared to what is coming in the Middle East.

I will agree with that. I submit that fossil fuels are entering a new phase of being incredibly expensive. Unfortunately, due to the high fossil fuel inputs into ethanol, they will follow the upward trend.

Farm lobby or big oil, your choice. What is the difference? One is in Wisconsin the other only extracts cash from Wisconsin. One is mainly your local employers, the other is beholden to terrorist supporting states. I know which I would pick.

The real misunderstanding is that supporting grain-ethanol will ever help us get off of Mideast Oil. It will not. We simply can’t make enough to replace what we get from the Middle East. So it’s not a choice. The choice is “farm lobby, plus Mideast Oil”.

I dislike farm subsidies as much as the next conservative. If you want to be fair, compare the total money spent on farm subsidies against the cost of the war in Iraq.

Again, all the farm and grain-ethanol subsidies in the world wouldn’t eliminate our need for Mideast Oil. You are setting up choice that doesn’t really exist.

Is Ethanol the long-term solution? Maybe, maybe not, but it is clearly better than continuing the status quo and bowing down to our Saudi masters.

Grain-ethanol is not going to change that status quo. Cellulosic ethanol, biodiesel, and conservation could accomplish this. Let’s spend our tax money on something that can actually make a difference.



2. FTC Finds No Collusion In Rising Gasoline Prices