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By Robert Rapier on Oct 7, 2006 with no responses

Fan Mail – Part I

Warning: If you send me an e-mail, in which you proceed to waste my time and make a fool of yourself, consider it fair game for publication. When I get these e-mails, I have always asked permission for publication, but I will no longer extend that courtesy for flagrantly rude, over-the-top e-mails, like the exchange I am about to highlight. If I am going to waste time on this sort of stuff, others should be able to learn from the exchange. I don’t have time to answer too many e-mails in detail AND post essays to my blog and The Oil Drum.

I get all sorts of e-mails, but inevitably get some that disagree with my position on some point or another. Those are fine. We can discuss the point or points of contention. Most of these exchanges are courteous and respectful. But occasionally I will get one from someone who has vastly overestimated their debating skills, and then they start digging themselves a hole when that becomes clear.

The exchange started out reasonably enough. I got an e-mail from Jim Paris, who calls himself President of Paris Innovation, LLC. (I should have signed my e-mails: Robert Rapier, CEO of Rapier’s Refutations).

Jim Paris’ Opening Volley

Hi Robert,

I just read some of your opinions about how you believe that gasoline has a better ERoEI than ethanol. http://i-r-squared.blogspot.com/2006/04/challenge-to-minnesota-dept-of.html You seem to have bought into the “big oil BS.” You seem to be saying that for every 10 barrels of energy that are extracted from the earth, 8 barrels make it to the gas pump. Do you actually believe that? How ridiculous! Furthermore, the oil industry infrastructure alone has cost “trillions” to create, do you think that was created without fossil fuel? Do you think it operates without fossil fuel?

When it comes to ethanol efficiency, check out this technology:

http://www.e3biofuels.com/efficiency.html

Lets start with a real simple example of biomass energy. I own farm with lots of trees. These trees grow all by themselves without any time, energy, or money invested. With a chainsaw and one gallon of gasoline, I can cut up enough wood to heat my house all winter, and with a couple of ponies and a wagon, bring it up and stack it in my back yard. So Robert, what’s my ERoEI? Are you going to count all the energy that the sun invested into making the aforementioned tree, then deduct it from the btus recovered in my house? Maybe with those figures you could show that my ERoEI is the same you claim for crude oil :-)

At any given moment, the sun is bathing the earth with at least 10,000 times as much energy that civilization is using. That sunlight creates lighting, direct heating, biomass, and wind; and arrives here “free of charge.” Additionally, it does not pollute or create excess CO2 as does fossil fuel. On the other hand, there is no such thing as “free fossil fuel,” which means you have to expend more energy to make money to by it. The web of cost of fossil fuel is so extensive, it’s hard to fathom.

By contrast, farmers already have the infrastructure to grow crops for fuel. They don’t have to buy any new or dedicated equipment. All they have to do is build an ethanol plant like the one cited in the above website and the fossil energy consumption plummets to inconsequential levels.

Big oil wants people to believe that the world can not exist without them, which is nothing more than self-serving denial of the obvious. They kind of remind of cult-like evangelistic religions that are so prevalent these days, the non-sense they believe is so deeply ingrained, they can’t even hear you when you attempt to point it out.

James L Paris, President
Paris Innovation, LLC
104 E. Loomis St.
Ludington, MI 49431

OK, no big deal. The guy is another person confused about the energy balance of gasoline versus ethanol, who also apparently ignored my opening statement in that essay:

In this essay, I will again be discussing the energy balance of gasoline versus ethanol. I am not doing this to suggest that gasoline is a great fuel of choice, but merely to show that grain ethanol is not. Gasoline has its own set of baggage, most notably that it is not sustainable. But the purpose of this essay is merely to examine claims from ethanol advocates who would have us believe that ethanol is actually more energy efficient to produce than gasoline.

What I was about to learn is that this was a bad habit of Jim’s: He only read what he wanted to read, ignoring everything else that didn’t support his preconceptions. Worse, in my opinion, is that he copied NREL’s Michael Pacheco, who is director of the National Bioenergy Center, on every one of his responses. I see this kind of behavior from time to time, typically in people who think their arguments are so good they warrant a high-level audience. Now, any person moderately good at reading comprehension can see that I was not pushing gasoline as a solution in that essay, nor have I done so in any essay. But that didn’t slow Jim down from jumping on that line of argumentation, and continuing despite multiple attempted corrections.

So, I responded with the hope of clearing up some of his misconceptions. Jim’s words are italicized.

Robert Rapier’s First Response

Hi James,

“You seem to be saying that for every 10 barrels of energy that are extracted from the earth, 8 barrels make it to the gas pump. Do you actually believe that? How ridiculous!”

I don’t “believe” it, James. I know it to be fact. I do this for a living (but have also worked extensively on alternative energy, including cellulosic ethanol). For 10 barrels of oil extracted, the actual conversion to products is about 95%. So, 10 barrels will gross about 9.5 barrels. Now the net will be lower, because of energy inputs. Typically, a heavy, sour refinery will take about 1 BTU to refine 10. So you can lower the net to maybe 8.5 barrels. The overall EROEI for gasoline, starting with crude in the ground, is at least 6.5. I have done extensive calculations, using actual process data.

“When it comes to ethanol efficiency, check out this technology:”

LOL! That’s good stuff, James. So good, I have raved about it, and was even quoted in National Geographic endorsing the process:

http://i-r-squared.blogspot.com/2006/08/national-geographic-story.html

I have spoken at length with their project manager, and he asked me for advice on a number of issues. I also have a copy of the energy model for their plant. The claims in the National Geographic article are a bit exaggerated, but E3 is a big step in the right direction.

“So Robert, what’s my ERoEI?”

Your EROEI is simply the BTUs that went into the gasoline, chainsaw manufacture, and transportation. The EROEI of burning biomass is very good. Probably even better than from extracting and burning crude oil. If you do it sustainably, then your EROEI will drop because now you have energy inputs for replanting the biomass.

“Big oil wants people to believe that the world can not exist without them, which is nothing more than self-serving denial of the obvious.”

Well, right now it is true that the world can’t exist without Big Oil. Just imagine that they shut off all oil tomorrow, and the world would quickly descend into chaos and starvation. But we have to transition to a sustainable society. Ethanol from corn is ultimately not sustainable, because it relies heavily on fossil fuel inputs. The EROEI is too poor to seriously compete with gasoline. Biomass gasification would be a far better option. Biodiesel is a better option than ethanol. Direct solar capture is better. Butanol is probably better (I also worked on this for years). We have many better options, but none has the lobbying power behind corn ethanol. My goal is to prod us in the direction of a more responsible energy policy, lobbyists and special interests be damned.

Cheers,

Robert Rapier

This seemed to really get under Jim’s skin, and he started to seriously misrepresent my position. He did a great job whacking away at those straw men, but ultimately he is talking to himself. Furthermore, since Jim believes that the world can exist just fine without Big Oil, I invite him to stop using petroleum-based products, or admit that (for better or worse) the world is incredibly dependent on Big Oil. Denial of this has to make you wonder about Jim’s level of self-delusion.

Jim Paris’ Second Response

Hi Robert,

There you go again! You completely ignore all the energy to build, maintain, and operate the extraction of crude. Maybe you’ve overlooked things like building refineries, pipelines, giant ships, drilling and producing platforms, exploration costs, software development, administration costs, etc. etc.. I’ve been doing numerous oil field projects for nearly 30 years, I understand things like “dry holes,” “damaged formations,” and ruptured hulls. I know what’s involved, and the often immense losses.

The premise of your argument is disingenuous because you exclude all those costs except the actual energy to crack the crude. You attempt to make the reader believe that 8 out of those 10 barrels end up at the gas pump for the public’s use. You conveniently leave out the other 3-4 barrels of energy that go right back into the previously mentioned infrastructure of getting the damn crude in the first place. Was all that infrastructure built and maintained without fossil fuel? Explain please. Those costs are so omni-directional and massive, I doubt that they could be truly delineated with the “process data” that you’ve been using. At least you amended your 8 barrels down to 6.5, but I would be surprised if any credible study by any “non big oil funded” institution could ever show more than 3 or 4 barrels of energy out of 10 actually being consumed by a purpose not related to the delivering of the crude oil energy in the first place.

The infrastructure of agriculture already exists, no “trillions” needed to build, maintain, and operate anything remotely like the oil industry. Further more, planting trees can be done by hand. Back in the 30s and 40s, we planted 3 billion of them here in Michigan by hand, and most of them are still growing and accumulating the sun’s energy today along with 9 billion others.

You’re attempting to force a prejudicial point by cherry-picking data to make the oil industry look way better than what it is. Why? What is your purpose in attempting this? In effect, your message seems to be, since old ethanol plants are inefficient, we should not attempt to build any new ones. I imagine that the Wright Brothers received similar criticism.

I guess you do accept that the project that I pointed out to you is substantially more efficient than crude, but you probably don’t want to come right out and admit it after you “sabbed” on grain ethanol as much as you did.

I’ve actually developed very important technology in the production of ethanol from cellulose which will be a nearly complete detachment from fossil fuels. I have been engineering and promoting the construction of a $200,000,000. project here in Michigan for nearly 3 years. When it comes to making ethanol from cellulose, I doubt that you’re going to point out something I don’t know.

What does sort of “tick me off” though, is when some engineer starts cherry picking data to promote his prejudice to an unwitting public. I’ve seen a lot of it, and quite often, I stomp on it when I do. We need to get away from fossil fuels before we plummet this planet into catastrophe. (Perhaps you deny global warming too.) Wind, solar, wave, biomass, and conservation are going to play an important part in this. Trying to make crude oil and coal look better than it is, is like “putting lipstick on a pig.”

Jim

There were so many unsupported and flagrantly false assertions in his response, that I didn’t even address them all, nor did I delve into great detail. I was also starting to become annoyed at spending so much time addressing one person’s willful misconceptions. So, I asked for permission to publish this exchange (permission denied – no surprise). Again, Jim’s responses are italicized.

Robert Rapier’s Second Response

Jim,

Would you mind if I published this exchange? If I have to spend time on misunderstandings, I prefer to have the exchange accessible to others so they too might learn. I would publish all exchanges in full, unedited.

If you are unclear about my position on something, I would be glad to explain. But it is a waste of my time to whack away at these straw men. You read an essay addressed at the misconception that it is more efficient to produce ethanol than gasoline. A common misconception, and one that I have addressed many times. However, suddenly you felt like you had my position pinned down, and so you felt the need to tell me all about this keen E3 Biofuels process – a process that I have already heartily endorsed and am well-acquainted with. My objective here is not to make crude oil look better than it is or ethanol worse than it is. My objective is factual debate and correction of misconceptions – some of which you have demonstrated in your e-mail. Let’s address them:

“You completely ignore all the energy to build, maintain, and operate the extraction of crude.”

No, I don’t. I used a very conservative EROEI for crude extraction that embodies the costs of extracting, transporting, etc. the crude to the refinery. The EROEI is a multi-step calculation: The crude portion and the refining portion. Both portions are captured. Furthermore, the numbers I have used are validated by (pro-ethanol) Argonne’s GREET model. It attempts to add up all of those inputs to come up with an overall efficiency of crude in the ground to gasoline in the tank.

But what you are missing, is that even if some inputs have been ignored, the ethanol EROEI calculations rely on the same numbers! If you manage to make the crude oil EROEI worse, then you will make the ethanol EROEI worse – until you can demonstrate that ethanol can prove itself without using the fossil fuel crutch. Also, the stated EROEI numbers for ethanol all ignore secondary inputs: the construction of the ethanol plant, the construction of the tractors, etc. So, what we have here is an apples to apples comparison between ethanol and gasoline, and the EROEI for ethanol is far inferior. Now, that’s not a knockout punch, because gasoline obviously has negative externalities, namely greenhouse gas emissions and the fact that it isn’t renewable. But until ethanol can break free from its fossil fuel addiction, it has the same negative externalities embedded within the process.

“The premise of your argument is disingenuous because you exclude all those costs except the actual energy to crack the crude.”

Hopefully, you now understand that this is not the case.

“At least you amended your 8 barrels down to 6.5…”

It was not my “8 barrels.” You are the one who mentioned 8 barrels.

“I would be surprised if any credible study by any “non big oil funded” institution could ever show more than 3 or 4 barrels of energy out of 10 actually being consumed by a purpose not related to the delivering of the crude oil energy in the first place.”

Given that you are making the insinuation, perhaps you can show a study that corroborates your insinuation?

“The infrastructure of agriculture already exists, no “trillions” needed to build, maintain, and operate anything remotely like the oil industry.”

Trillions of what? Dollars? If the ethanol industry was as big as the oil industry, it would certainly take massive dollars to maintain that infrastructure.

“You’re attempting to force a prejudicial point by cherry-picking data to make the oil industry look way better than what it is. Why? What is your purpose in attempting this?”

This is where I have to call you out, Jim. What is the prejudicial point? Have you read my essays on butanol, biodiesel, cellulosic ethanol, conservation, gas taxes, etc.? No? Then why are you attempting to stereotype my position into something it isn’t?

“In effect, your message seems to be, since old ethanol plants are inefficient, we should not attempt to build any new ones.”

Really? Then whatever do you think was the purpose of my glowing essay on E3 Biofuels? Perhaps your own prejudices are getting in the way of your objectivity.

“I guess you do accept that the project that I pointed out to you is substantially more efficient than crude, but you probably don’t want to come right out and admit it after you “sabbed” on grain ethanol as much as you did.”

Their plant hasn’t even started up yet, Jim. Original projections on energy balance have been downgraded, and no, it won’t be as good as crude. But it is a big step in the right direction. I think Brazilian sugarcane ethanol may very well have a better EROEI than crude. I think grain ethanol and cellulosic ethanol could potentially have a better EROEI than crude. But they certainly don’t right now, and those who claim they do are doing a disservice by making these false claims.

“I’ve actually developed very important technology in the production of ethanol from cellulose which will be a nearly complete detachment from fossil fuels.”

What are the patent numbers? I would be interested in reading them, because I am very interested in this area. I have pointed out to others before that I believe I was the first person ever to attempt to use termite gut microorganisms to produce cellulosic ethanol. I did that during my grad school research at Texas A&M in the early 90′s.

“When it comes to making ethanol from cellulose, I doubt that you’re going to point out something I don’t know.”

Oh, I wouldn’t bet on it. Maybe you are right, but if you know a lot about cellulosic ethanol then you know it still has a ways to go before it is commercially viable. The cellulose conversion step still adds too much cost for the process to be competitive with corn ethanol. I do support heavily funding the research, because there is great potential there. But it isn’t a sure thing.

“What does sort of “tick me off” though, is when some engineer starts cherry picking data to promote his prejudice to an unwitting public.”

My prejudices are toward honest scientific debate. My prejudices are against misleading and exaggerated claims. My prejudices are toward sustainable energy policy. Other than that, I don’t believe I have any.

“Perhaps you deny global warming too.”

You really don’t know anything about me, do you? You picked out an essay, thought you had me pegged, and then let loose. If you want to continue the debate, please don’t throw out any more gratuitous insults like that.

Take a bit more time to understand my position on these things, and you will save us both some time.

Cheers,

Robert

The level of delusion and denial in Jim’s post regarding energy inputs was stunning. In essence, he wanted to say that oil has a very expensive and complex infrastructure that ethanol simply does not require. Not only is this not true, but the ultimate irony is that due to the poor EROEI of grain ethanol (which I was addressing in the essay to which he responded), all of those infrastructure costs of petroleum are embedded within the ethanol process anyway. This will be the case as long as grain ethanol relies heavily on fossil fuel inputs, but Jim persisted in ignoring this. Furthermore, it is silly to focus simply on total infrastructure cost. The proper metric, if this is what he wants to consider, is infrastructure cost (or energy input) per barrel processed. A whole lot more barrels of oil get processed than ethanol, so most people should not be surprised at the overall cost of oil infrastructure.

Also note that to this point Jim has not actually supported any of this arguments with data. From the very first e-mail, when he challenged my EROEI claim with “ridiculous”, he just threw out a series of claims. No calculations or data to back them up.

I am going to save Jim’s most recent e-mail for Part II. It was so over the top and littered with ad homs and straw men, that I decided to publish the exchange regardless of whether he wanted me to. I will let you know that Jim told me he doesn’t have any patents (which I already knew, since I had done a patent search). It seems his research is “top secret”, that he is protecting his very valuable inventions with Trade Secrets, and “the only people that patent that type of technology are “academics” that were paid to make the patent in the first place, and really just do it for recognition.” Wink, wink. I know all about Trade Secrets. Several of my inventions have gotten that distinction, instead of being patented. It is always a downer to find out that your invention was only deemed worthy of Trade Secret status, and I question anyone claiming preference of Trade Secrets over a much more legally protected patent – especially for the development of “very important technology.”