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By Robert Rapier on May 18, 2006 with no responses

Rapier Response to Miglietta


First of all, I would like to thank Joseph Miglietta for taking up my Ethanol Debate Challenge. I firmly believe that the best way to get to evaluate some of these claims is by having an open debate, with both sides presenting their arguments, and defending them from criticisms. If you are already an ethanol believer, you aren’t going to be convinced by FAQs from the American Petroleum Institute. Likewise, if you are already an ethanol skeptic, you aren’t going to be convinced by FAQs from the American Coalition for Ethanol. But, head to head exchanges offer a chance to critique the other side and determine whether the arguments hold up.

I agree with some of what Joseph writes, and on other parts I don’t feel strongly one way or another. I will only address those arguments that I feel need rebutting. But first, I will open with a brief statement explaining my position.

My opposition to ethanol is primarily due to the inefficiency of the process. My opening commentary here is primarily aimed at grain ethanol. I know Joseph acknowledged that this is not the best way, but it is the way we are subsidizing and promoting it here in the U.S. To make ethanol, we use petroleum-fueled tractors to plow the fields. We apply petroleum-based herbicides to kill the weeds. We apply petroleum-based pesticides to kill the bugs. We apply petroleum-based fertilizers to feed the plants. We harvest the corn with petroleum-fueled tractors, and ship the corn to the ethanol plants in petroleum-fueled trucks. The ethanol plants are natural gas hogs, consuming enormous quantities to ferment and purify an ethanol solution that is primarily water. We then ship the ethanol, often halfway across the country, in petroleum-fueled trucks. The customer on the receiving end pays less than market price for the ethanol, due to the subsidies, which are paid by taxpayers. Then, they suffer a decrease in gas mileage, meaning they have to fuel up more often.

Some of the proponents think switching to ethanol is a way to “stick it to Big Oil”. What they overlook is that Big Oil benefits greatly at all steps of the ethanol process. They make the fossil fuels that drive the tractors. They supply the petrochemicals that make the fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. And who do you think is the largest natural gas producer in the U.S.? I will give you a hint: One of the members of “Big Oil”.

The energy balance of ethanol has been much discussed, but here is the problem in a nutshell. Let’s look at the 2002 USDA study on the topic. If you look at Table 1, you will see that the USDA authors estimate fossil fuel inputs of 77,228 BTUs to make 84,100 BTUs of ethanol. So, the energy balance would be a positive 9%. They report a positive balance of 34%, but that’s because they include some BTU value for co-product credits (animal feed). But as far as fossil fuels in and ethanol out, it’s 9%. (However, the USDA did admittedly omit some energy inputs, so it is still possible that the energy balance is actually negative). In a later 2004 publication, they played with the math a bit, assigning a large fraction of the energy inputs to the co-products. This allowed them to claim 67% energy returned, but is merely an accounting trick that I addressed here.

Often overlooked in these analyses is the fact that soil is eroded during the process of growing the corn, and pesticide, herbicide, and fertilizer runoff all end up in our waterways. So, in light of all this, I have to ask if it actually makes sense to support such a process. Wouldn’t we be far better off just using the natural gas to directly fuel our vehicles? Every step in the process of making ethanol has efficiency losses. The more steps in the process, the higher the efficiency losses. Every BTU of heat that ends up radiating into the environment during the process is a BTU that did no useful work. By directly using the natural gas to fuel the vehicles, the cost would be far lower to the consumer and the taxpayer, and the efficiency much greater. Billions of dollars of subsidies would be eliminated in the process. Why, oh why do we continue down this insane path?

Next, I will address some specifics from Joseph.

Response to Specific Arguments

JM: Especially here in the South where I now live, people’s knowledge on this subject is abysmal. So, if by means of these debates we can contribute a little to this effect, I would feel rewarded.

The problem is not limited to the South. It is ubiquitous. The media and the politicians seem to understand very little about this issue. Above, I asked the rhetorical question of why we continue down this path. The answer is that people are generally uninformed with respect to ethanol. They often have certain cherished beliefs that they have not been forced to defend. Therefore, they continue merrily along in the belief that ethanol may in fact be the solution, or a substantial part of the solution to our oil dependence.

JM: Conservation could be a solution to the oil crisis; it would also help traffic congestion, not to mention the lessening of environmental problems. But in my opinion, it is a step backward in our progress. Crises offer incentives for improvement; going back, instead, imply defeat.

I strongly disagree. In the long-term, our energy needs must be met with sustainable solutions. The status quo can’t be maintained, because there is simply no alternative out there that compares to pumping an energy rich liquid fuel right out of the ground. We must conserve. We can do this voluntarily, and government can pass policies to encourage us to do so. Otherwise, we will do it involuntarily, because we simply can’t get the energy we need. No alternatives can meet our current energy desires. Conservation has to be instilled in every one of us.

JM: Of course, producing ethanol from grain (corn) is not the best way. In general, producing ethanol from starch is by far less energy efficient than from sugars. If all the arable land in our country would be cultivated for corn for ethanol production, it would hardly make a significant dent in our fuel consumption. (I am exaggerating here a little to stress my point).

That’s just the thing, though. You really aren’t exaggerating at all. We might be able to produce 10 billion gallons of ethanol. If we turned 100% of the corn crop into ethanol, we would produce the equivalent of less than 15% of our annual gasoline consumption. However, that is not on a net basis. On a net basis, since you consumed fossil fuels that could have been used as transportation fuels, in reality you would displace less than 5% of our energy consumption by turning 100% of the corn crop into ethanol.

JM: A 10% incorporation of ethanol in gasoline, or E10, may sometime in the near future be nationwide. Sure, we can achieve this only by government subsidy, but it’s a start. Subsidies are supposed to be temporary measures. In the meantime, this will create an incentive to find more efficient ways to handle starch.

These subsidies started being handed out almost 30 years ago. Yet today, the entire ethanol market is still dependent upon continuation of these handouts. It simply can’t exist without subsidies or mandates, and people should ask why. What they will find is that it is because ethanol is so dependent upon fossil fuels for its manufacture. People expect the process to improve, and thus ethanol will become cheaper, but they overlook the fact that the fossil fuel inputs will really drive the price of ethanol higher as oil becomes more scarce. The fact of the matter is that ethanol is primarily a fossil fuel, because that’s what it is made from.

JM: Research is being conducted to use cheaper starting materials.

I agree that cellulosic ethanol offers more hope. I think research in this area should continue to be generously funded. However, unless the fossil fuel inputs can be substantially decoupled from the ethanol production process, or the energy balance can be significantly improved, then ethanol of any sort will be a dead end. The energy balance for cellulosic appears to be better, but other factors have inhibited market penetration. So, it is worth further pursuit, but we need to rigorously evaluate the claims.

JM: We are pressed with time in view of the mounting competition for oil from China and India, its spiraling prices, global warming, not to mention that we are indirectly financing terrorism. For these very reasons, we need to import ethanol and reduce the import of oil.

Given the marginal energy balance, there is little to no global warming benefit. If you saw the recent 60 Minutes special, you saw ethanol proponent Daniel Kammen say that the greenhouse gas reduction would be “modest”. That comment right there should tell you just how “renewable” ethanol really is. Note that this does not even factor in the greenhouse gas emissions from the by-products, which cause cattle to emit more methane – a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

JM: One of the reasons I content is why we impose a tariff on a cleaner fuel imported from friendly countries and import tariff-free oil from rogue countries. The reason should be obvious: oil companies are the powerful force behind. Their tactics is simple: increase the price of gasoline at the pump, and then decrease it by a few cents to pacify the animosity of the public. But oil companies are not the only force against ethanol imports.

Sorry, but this one falls entirely at the feet of ethanol producers. They are the ones who lobbied against the bill to drop the ethanol tariff. Since ethanol is mandated, oil companies want to find the cheapest source of ethanol they can find. It is of no benefit to them to lobby against the tariffs. Perhaps you caught this recent story: Boehner won’t push to cut ethanol tariff Some excerpts:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – In a big win for U.S. ethanol producers, House Majority Leader John Boehner said on Monday he will not push legislation to reduce the U.S. tariff on ethanol imports.

U.S. oil refiners are scrambling to secure ethanol supplies to mix with gasoline this summer as they switch from using the water-polluting fuel additive MTBE. But the Energy Department has warned that U.S. ethanol supplies will fall short and refiners will need to rely on more imports.

Farm state lawmakers, whose corn-grower constituents supply the feedstock for making the vast majority of U.S. ethanol, strongly oppose easing the U.S. tariffs on foreign, and therefore competing, ethanol shipments.

“Boehner has always been an ardent supporter of the ethanol industry,” his spokesman said. “The industry is important for strengthening the economy in rural America and weaning the U.S. from its dependence on foreign oil.”

The Renewable Fuels Association, the ethanol industry trade group whose members include giant agriprocessor Archer Daniels Midland Co., said in a recent letter to House and Senate leadership that “removing the tariff will have no impact on what American drivers are paying at the pump.”

Oil producers want the tariffs suspended. Consumers want them suspended. Ethanol producers don’t.

JM: Brazil has much less cars than us, and a vast territory with ideal climatic conditions for sugar cane. Consequently, they have a surplus of ethanol and they can easily meet an increased demand.

In response to that, I submit some quotes from Brazil’s Ethanol Lesson Is How to Manage Our Oil Addiction:

In reality, ethanol is a minor player in Brazilian energy supply. It accounts for less than one-tenth of all the country’s energy liquids. The real source of Brazil’s self-sufficiency is the country’s extraordinary success in producing more oil.

Yet, even with Brazil’s favorable climate and sugar’s inviting biology, ethanol is already reaching the limit. That’s because the land and other resources devoted to ethanol can be put to other uses such as growing food and cash crops.

Indeed, today the Brazilian government is actually reducing the share of ethanol that must be blended into gasoline because sugar growers prefer to make even more money by selling their product as sugar on the world market rather than fermenting it into alcohol.

JM: I know no other alternatives for ethanol; better perhaps, but not as commercially readily available as ethanol. Eventually, ethanol will be phased out but I don’t think this will happen for many years to come.

How about Plug-In Hybrids (PHEVs)? How about lowering the speed limit? How about raising CAFE standards to European levels? How about more tax incentives for purchasing fuel efficient vehicles ? Those are all better uses of our alternative energy dollar than a scheme to turn natural gas and petroleum into ethanol via a process that has a marginal energy return.

JM: E10 will not make us energy independent. But E85 would.

No, it wouldn’t. We consume far too much fuel, and can’t make enough ethanol. Realistically, it would be difficult for us to get to a 15% ethanol blend nationwide.

JM: I use the word “alcohol” to include methanol, which could be produced from coal, and we have the world’s largest reserve of it. The technology has not yet been developed, however.

Sure it has. This is how Sasol produces methanol in South Africa. There is nothing at all that is complex about it; it’s just easier to use natural gas than coal.

With that, I will close. If you wish to continue the exchange, please respond in the comments section, or e-mail me your response. I will get it formatted and posted within a few days.