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By Robert Rapier on Jun 12, 2007 with 1 response

Letter to CNN on Inaccuracies

Dear CNN,

Over the weekend, I watched your special report We Were Warned: Out of Gas. I had previously seen the original version, “Out of Oil”, and wrote to CNN at that time pointing out a number of inaccuracies in the report. (It appears that the transcript still reflects the earlier version). Those inaccuracies remain in the newer version, so again I feel compelled to point them out. While I think the overall message of the report is essential, you give critics ammunition by not having all of your facts in order. So let’s look at some points.

First, we have Frank Sesno stating “Ethanol now accounts for nearly 40 percent of Brazil’s transportation fuel.” This is inaccurate. Diesel accounts for over 50% of transportation fuel. Gasoline provides 26%. Ethanol, by volume, comes in at 17%. But because ethanol has lower energy content, the actual energy contribution is around 10%.

Second, we have Sesno stating “Ethanol helped Brazil beat its oil addiction, and with sales and exports growing, its profitable, no more government money.” Considering that Brazil gets 90% of their energy from fossil fuels – including a large proportion from oil – I would hardly call that beating their oil addition. What they have done, as a result of aggressive domestic oil policies, is to use their own oil instead of depending on imported oil. This is possible because Brazil has an oil supply/demand picture far more favorable than does the United States. However, I would point out that the car that Sesno was driving around in has numerous parts that were derived from imported oil. So, Brazil still has an oil addition, just like the rest of the world.

Third, we have Sesno asking “So I’m thinking, why can’t I do this in America?” I can easily answer that question for him. The reason is that Brazil domestically produces over 3 barrels of oil per capita each year. This is almost enough to meet the demand, which is around 4 barrels per person. Other sources, including ethanol, are able to close that gap. The U.S., on the other hand, produces 11 barrels per person, but we use 27 barrels per person. The only way we can close that large gap is with imports. No way could we do it with ethanol, unless we drastically reduce that gap by reducing demand. We also need to consider the fact that Brazil makes ethanol out of sugarcane – far more efficient than doing so from corn – and that the population is quite a bit smaller than that of the U.S. The fact is that the U.S. couldn’t replicate what Brazil has done even by turning the entire corn crop into ethanol. The lesson we can take from Brazil is that we need to use a lot less oil in the U.S.

On the question of why distribution for E85 is limited, there seems to be this widespread misconception that this is preventing further penetration of ethanol into the market. In fact, the amount of ethanol we currently produce could not even provide a nationwide E10 blend. If we had E85 pumps at stations from coast to coast, most of them would simply have no product to sell.

Finally, on the topic of hydrogen, Sesno states “Pollution-free technology, but years, probably decades before these cars are king of the road.” This technology is far from pollution-free. Over 95% of all hydrogen is produced from natural gas. So while a hydrogen car may emit no pollution, there was a lot of pollution generated in the production of the hydrogen. The hope is that some day hydrogen will be economically produced via renewable sources, but the possibility is distant at best.

In conclusion, the report delivers a needed message. But the inaccuracies distract from the message. I hope that CNN will see fit to correct these errors in the future.


Robert Rapier
Chemical Engineer
Aberdeen, Scotland

  1. By Malcolm Dale on March 4, 2012 at 2:11 pm

    I saw on CNN yesterday morning one of their airhead anchorwomen saying “Prince Harry has arrived in the Caribbean island of Belize.”
    Well I live in Belize and it is not an island, it’s on the mainland of central America. Furthermore Prince Harry did not arrive until about 7 hours later. Well at least they got his name right.
    I emailed CNN but of course I received no reply. I think they stopped saying “the most trusted name in news.” Ig they didn’t they should.

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