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By Robert Rapier on May 11, 2006 with no responses

Ethanol Debate Challenge

Suggested Debate Guidelines

My opinions on grain ethanol are clear from my previous essays. I object to grain ethanol because I feel it is a tremendous misallocation of time, money, and resources, while the benefits are marginal (and may even be harmful). I believe there are far better uses for our alternative energy dollar, and grain ethanol in the long run is a dead end (unless you use coal to make it, but there are probably better uses for coal). But it seems that I have some critics (see next section). So, I want to give them a chance to have their claims examined in a public forum.

I offer the following debate challenge to any ethanol advocate willing to take it on. We will have a written debate, to be hosted on this blog, and anywhere you would like to host it (provided it isn’t edited). I would propose 3 rounds, with a 1500 word maximum per round. Up to 1 week would be allowed between postings. I do not care anything about your credentials, but claims must be verifiable, and claims from the peer-reviewed scientific literature are preferred. Claims from obscure papers or anecdotal evidence will not be allowed.

I can think of several possible debate topics. My opponent may feel free to suggest their own, or to propose modifications in the guidelines I set forth in the previous paragraph. My suggestions for debate topics are:

1. The pros/cons of producing ethanol from grain.
2. Whether Brazil provides a useful example for U.S. energy policy.
3. The pros/cons of E85 as fuel.

I foresee the debate getting into energy balance issues, use of energy inputs into the ethanol process, the USDA studies on ethanol, ethanol subsidies, and alternatives to ethanol. If you are an advocate, and wish to test your mettle, let me know. There has been a lot of pro-ethanol press lately. I maintain that it is based largely on misinformation and exaggerations, and that these claims will break down upon investigation. So, Tom Daschle, Vinod Khosla, or Dan Rather, let’s see what those arguments look like when they are subject to cross-examination. Who knows? You might even convince me. I really do have an open mind. My objective is not to “beat you” in a debate. It is to educate people on both sides of this issue. If you are interested, leave a note in the comments after this post.

Addressing Some Critics

Rarely do I encounter an ethanol advocate who backs up their arguments with actual literature references. Most of them seem to fall into one of 3 (not necessarily mutually exclusive) categories: 1). The naïve idealist; 2). The ethanol investor; or 3). The person whose livelihood depends on ethanol. Their style of argumentation frequently consists of ad hominems, bombast, rhetoric, and made up facts. Their arguments are conspicuously light on references and verifiable facts. See my account of a previous exchange on another blog.

This time, I will highlight a recent exchange I had with an advocate over at The Oil Drum. Not unexpectedly, he refused my request to debate the issue. I think he had a problem with “claims must be verifiable”, as he made a lot of claims that did not withstand scrutiny.

I have endured the occasional potshots by an advocate who simply states “False”, or “You don’t know what you are talking about” in response to one of my arguments. This one started much the same way. The trouble started when a poster linked to this 2004 paper by David Blume. (1) Blume is an ethanol proponent, and author of the book “Alcohol Can Be a Gas”. After reading through his essay I concluded that some of his arguments simply were not credible. I gave my reasoning in this thread. I won’t get into all of the issues I had with Blume’s essay, as several are covered in the thread above. Below is a sampling:

David Blume: Let’s talk about the subsidies things first. Pretty much – if you take a look at oil, some of the timid evaluations of how much oil is subsidized show it to be subsidized at the rate of about $5 per gallon. The more complete analysis of subsidies for oil show it to be subsidized at about $15 per gallon.

Clearly, he is suggesting that the “real” subsidy for oil is $15/gallon. A $15 per gallon subsidy? So, a barrel of oil is subsidized at the rate of $630? We use about 3 billion barrels of oil in this country a year. So, he is suggesting that oil is subsidized at the rate of almost $2 trillion a year. This is approximately the size of the entire U.S. budget. (2) As far as I am concerned, his credibility is shot right there. The theme throughout is that he played pretty loose with the facts, exaggerating for effect as needed.

He commited the expected ad hom on David Pimentel (basically accusing him of fraud), and then makes the positively ludicrous claim that the energy return from corn is actually 2.94:1. Not even the USDA makes that claim, and they are counting the by-products as BTU outputs. This is another serious shot to his credibility.

In another essay, Blume is discussing ethanol production from sugar beets. (3) He says:

David Blume: There has been research that shows a 1:11 energy-balance ratio with ethanol. The USDA, definitely a conservative entity, found net positive output from ethanol of the order of 67 percent. When you compare that to the current numbers on petroleum extraction, which hover around the 1:1 ratio, we should wonder why we all aren’t growing sugar beets.”

I have certainly never seen anything like an 1:11 (I presume he is saying energy inputs:energy outputs) energy balance for sugar beets, so I am skeptical. I asked for a reference. But I do know a bit about the other 2 claims. The USDA is definitely NOT a conservative entity, but what Blume is implying here by suggesting that is that the energy return is even better than they say. The USDA is definitely pro-ethanol. But, I have shown that their positive energy return of 67 percent doesn’t withstand scrutiny. Interesting to note that Michael Wang, one of the co-authors of that report, doesn’t even use that number when giving presentations on ethanol. In a presentation he made just last fall, he said that to produce 1 MMBTU of ethanol requires a fossil fuel input of 0.74 MMBTU. That is an energy return of 1.35.

But, the most ludicrous claim of all is that the current numbers on petroleum extraction hover around 1:1. To Blume’s credit, he is only off by an order of magnitude. The real numbers on petroleum extraction are at least 10:1 for both the extraction step and the refining step, for an overall return of at least 5:1.

Blume also stated, in the same article dated June 8, 2005:

David Blume: “The choice is over; we hit peak oil production in November 2004. We’re currently operating in a functional oil peak, and alcohol is the only fuel to challenge gas.”

Of course that’s not true, is it? We didn’t hit peak in November 2004. You can see the government statistics here . (4) So there is another unwarranted claim. In summary, I didn’t feel like the guy had demonstrated a great deal of credibility on several items, so I indicated that I would be cautious accepting claims without pretty good references.

So, how did my opponent respond over at The Oil Drum? You can see some of the exchange with “fuelaholic” starting here. Blume himself responds with a series of Red Herrings, which for the most part I just ignored, instead challenging him to debate the issue. But it didn’t take long for my opponent to get nasty:

Fuelaholic: I think the Oil Drum folks need to research who you really are and who your allegiance is really to. Your paycheck, perhaps?

Isn’t it ironic that an anonymous poster would say that I need to be investigated to find out who I really am? If I had some ulterior motives, would I be more likely to adopt a pseudonym, or use my real name?

Fuelaholic: Like Pimentel, who refused to apply his numbers to organic farming methods, you focus on what is, not what can be.

Incidentally, fuelaholic frequently calls Pimentel an “oil company shill”. Speaking of which:

Fuelaholic: First of all, I’ve read plenty of biofuels comments here. They are not as clearly slanted, and poorly thought out as yours. And I haven’t agreed with a lot of them. But I know they aren’t oil company shills.

I guess if you can’t support your arguments with facts, insult your opponent or cast aspersions on their motives.

Fuelaholic: I repeat, you are the one with the made up facts, poor understanding of basics (energy input vs energy output) and you are simply parroting oil company complaints and then covering your butt to disguise it whenever you can.

This from someone who hasn’t once addressed any of my arguments. I invite the reader to check that out by reading the link at The Oil Drum.

Fuelaholic: You’re an insulting smug wannabe know it all.

Sticks and stones…. Again, the reader can see who is doing the insulting. Also, my work with ethanol is in the public record, and can be easily verified. There are a couple of links to the right you can use to see for yourself. I will also point out that some of the posters at The Oil Drum disagreed with his assessment after I posted the exchange there.

Fuelaholic: I think frankly instead of saying something like, this beet EROEI is bs, you should be saying, oh, really, I’d like to see that study. But you didn’t.

The funny was that I had asked him for the reference. My exact words were “Show me the reference”. You can see at the link above. This is the kind of sloppy argumentation that I find very annoying.

Fuelaholic: It’s clear you have no children, no concern for hope, no concern for anything other than your paycheck.

Wrong on all counts. These are the same sorts of “facts” he has used to support his ethanol arguments.

Fuelaholic: And you spend too much g-d time blogging. You have to be paid for it! End of story.

That’s it. “End of story”. Another “fact” from fuelaholic. Sadly, the advocates often can’t tell the difference between making a claim, and making a factual claim.

Nice guy, eh? His mistake is in taking this personally. He should be interested in getting to the truth of the matter. If someone can show me a viable method of significantly improving the energy balance for ethanol, I am not going to call you names and throw out a bunch of Red Herrings. I would be perfectly happy to embrace ethanol if I thought it made sense to do it. Right now, I think many other options are far better.

References

1. Blume, David, “Alternative Fuels – Promise and Perils”, 2004 Conference Proceedings of The Community Solution, 2004.

2. “United States Federal Budget”, Wikipedia 2006.

3. “Ethanol Dreams”, Metro Santa Cruz, June 8, 2005.

4. “World Oil Supply, 1997-Present”, Energy Information Administration. Accessed May 11, 2006.