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By Robert Rapier on May 8, 2006 with 1 response

Daschle and Khosla Ethanol Propaganda

I just read an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times by Tom Daschle and Vinod Khosla. The editorial is Miles Per Cob, (1) and is one of the dumbest things I have run across in a long, long time. I can’t actually believe such garbage makes it into print, and I have to wonder whether it will actually convince anyone.

Let’s break it down.

Our addiction to oil underlies the greatest threats to our country’s stability and prosperity: we pump billions of dollars into fundamentalist “petrolist” regimes in the Middle East and release into the atmosphere carbon from petroleum products, perpetuating global warming and aggravating natural disasters from the Gulf Coast to the Indian Ocean.

OK, I am with you so far. Billions of dollars sent to the Middle East, and perpetuation of global warming. I have no problems with this argument.

The answer to these threats is research and innovation to commercialize new fuel technologies in partnership with America’s farmers. Our national leadership must promote a market-based shift away from petroleum-based fuels toward renewable fuels produced in America with American technology.

Partially agree. We do need to transition toward renewable fuels. But since none of the alternatives can replace our current fuel demands, and none are completely renewable – they all have fossil fuel inputs – we also need to encourage conservation in a BIG way.

The CAFE standard does nothing to encourage that change. It requires American automakers to build cars and trucks that meet a minimum standard of average mileage traveled per gallon of gasoline. But the current standard for minimum mileage traveled per gallon of gas consumed is both too low and focused on the wrong challenge.

Say what? I thought they said they were worried about global warming. So, here’s a pop quiz, Mr. Daschle and Mr. Khosla: Which option contributes the least toward global warming? A). Conservation; or B). Fueling up with ethanol. If you answered “B”, then you failed today’s quiz. You see, all of the alternatives out there, including the best of the bunch, have fossil fuel inputs. Ethanol, especially grain ethanol, has more fossil fuel inputs than any other alternative. By favoring any alternative over conservation, you show that you are not sincere about the global warming angle. You are promoting propaganda, plain and simple, to further an agenda.

We need to upgrade to a new CAFE: Carbon Alternative Fuel Equivalent. This new CAFE will measure “petroleum mileage” and give automakers incentives and credits for increasing ethanol consumption as a percentage of fuel use of their vehicles, not least by promoting flex-fuel vehicles, which can run on either gasoline or E85 fuel, a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. This approach promises several significant benefits.

Given that Khosla has a lot of money invested into ethanol, the motives toward his push for ethanol are suspect. There is nothing, and I mean nothing, that can make a bigger impact toward reducing our dependence on foreign oil and reducing our greenhouse gas emissions than conservation. Perhaps Mr. Daschle and Mr. Khosla saw the special last night on 60 Minutes, in which ethanol proponent and Berkeley professor Daniel Kammen stated that the greenhouse gas reduction from using ethanol would be “modest”. Interesting choice of words there. Do you know why he said “modest”, instead of something like “substantial”, or “significant”? Well, it’s quite simple. The reason he said “modest” is that ethanol production consumes a lot of natural gas, resulting in the emission of a lot of greenhouse gases. The byproducts of the process are then fed to cattle, which produce methane, a very potent greenhouse gas.

So, in promoting ethanol you are merely playing a shell game, in which the greenhouse gas emissions are not substantially reduced, but the source of the emissions has been shifted from gasoline to natural gas. Among other things, this will drive up heating costs in the winter, because competition for natural gas will increase as more ethanol is produced. (An alternative, of course, is to use coal to fuel the ethanol plants, but you say you are concerned about global warming. In that case, coal is out).

First, it could set America free from its dependence on foreign oil. As Brazil’s “energy independence miracle” proves, an aggressive strategy of investing in petroleum substitutes like ethanol can end dependence on imported oil.

This kind of nonsense needs to be confronted. Let’s see your calculations, Mr. Daschle and Mr. Khosla. I can show you mine, that demonstrate that if we turned 100% of the corn crop into ethanol, we would displace less than 15% of our annual motor fuel demand. On a “net” basis, though, the displacement is much less because we will have consumed enormous quantities of natural gas in producing the ethanol. Greenhouse gases will increase, but Mr. Khosla will have made a lot of money in the process.

Second thing, I pointed out in my previous essay that there is much more to Brazil’s “energy independence miracle” than “an aggressive strategy of investing in petroleum substitutes”. Brazil can do it because: 1). Producing ethanol from sugarcane is much more efficient, and much less energy intensive; 2). Brazilians use 1/6th of the energy per person that we use here in the U.S., meaning their fuel demand is much lower; 3). Brazilians drive tiny, fuel efficient vehicles; and 4). Gasoline prices in Brazil are even higher than they are in the U.S. (even though gasoline there has less energy content due to the ethanol). So do not pretend that Brazil’s “miracle” is in any way applicable to the U.S., unless you are also willing to implement 1-4 above.

Second, switching from gasoline to ethanol produced from perennial energy crops like switch grass can slash our carbon dioxide emissions.

I agree that producing ethanol from energy crops would probably be an improvement over ethanol from corn. So, why don’t you build a cellulose ethanol plant and demonstrate that instead of encouraging more corn ethanol production? Why is your editorial entitled “Miles Per Cob“?

The rest is mostly “Mom and apple pie”, so I won’t comment on it. Instead of appearing as an editorial, Mr. Daschle and Mr. Khosla should have been forced to pay to have this inserted as an advertisement. I felt dumber for having read it. The cynical side of me really struggles to understand their motives. Are they sincere, but just that misinformed? Do they honestly believe that this is the best solution for our energy woes? Or are they just out to make a buck, and so they don’t care that much about adopting solutions that make more sense (but won’t put money in their pockets)? I just don’t know. But I do know that misleading pieces like this will lull the public into complacency about our energy crisis. Writing things like “ethanol can end dependence on imported oil” is an incredibly irresponsible (and false) claim, given that it took a lot more than that to do it in Brazil.


1. “Miles Per Cob”, The New York Times, May 8, 2006.

  1. By Anonymous on March 4, 2010 at 7:35 pm

    "So do not pretend that Brazil’s "miracle" is in any way applicable to the U.S., unless you are also willing to implement 1-4 above."

    You have no idea how idiotic that argument is.

    Fact is that NO technology can ever feed america with its hunger for energy.

    Even oil is highly subsidized and america gets it cheap because it basically steals it from "liberated" countries such as Iraq.

    So unless america learns to behave like grown people and quits being a wining bitch, the only solution would be to invade venezuela this time.

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