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By Robert Rapier on Aug 9, 2007 with no responses

Bob Dinneen Responds to Rolling Stone

I know it’s been a bit heavy on ethanol lately, but I continue to get quite a bit of activity over the recent Rolling Stone article. That’s the whole reason for writing a FAQ. I have in the queue a half-finished essay on solar thermal, and would really like to delve into that topic a bit more. I don’t want to become “The Ethanol Blog”, but it seems like that recently.

Bob Dinneen, President of the Renewable Fuels Association (the same association that claims displacement of 170 million barrels of oil with the energy equivalent of 64 million barrels of ethanol) wrote to Rolling Stone and addressed Jeff Goodell’s recent story:

Letter To The Editor: Response to “The Ethanol Scam”

In the letter, Dinneen took a shot at me, writing “As is to be expected, Mr. Goodell relied on the figures of an energy blogger for his facts.” Goodell defended me:

For a thorough clarification, check out oil industry engineer Robert Rapier’s analysis. I know that Dinneen finds bloggers unsavory, but Rapier is among the most fair-minded and insightful critics of the energy industry I’ve come across.

And he pointed Dinneen here. So, Bob Dinneen, this one’s for you. Let’s deconstruct his letter. Jumping past the all too predictable ad hominems:

Wow, I am having to jump pretty far. Farther than I thought, as the letter is laced with ad hominems. Four paragraphs into the letter, Dinneen is waving the flag and talking about “Mr. Goodell’s Hugo Chavez.” Was this the best the RFA could come up with? Actually, I want to jump down and address the most egregious error, and the claim that I was most certain would be made by ethanol proponents:

Yet another common misconception offered by ethanol novices is that ethanol is at best energy neutral, meaning it takes as much energy to produce as it yields. As is to be expected, Mr. Goodell relied on the figures of an energy blogger for his facts. Inconveniently for his arguments, the federal government has different figures. According to the Argonne National Laboratories, ethanol yields nearly 70% more energy that it took to produce. Conversely, refined gasoline contains 20% LESS energy that it took to produce.

Can you count the errors and misleading statements? First, “ethanol yields nearly 70% more energy that it took to produce”. Then “gasoline contains 20% LESS energy that it took to produce.” Are you comparing like to like, Mr. Dinneen? Of course you aren’t. By your gasoline metric, ethanol also contains less energy than it took to produce. Why? Because you are counting the crude oil feed as an “input” to the gasoline process, but you are not counting the crude ethanol feed as an input to the ethanol process. You are not comparing like to like; you are comparing an efficiency to an energy return. So, here’s a question. If I give you some quantity of energy to invest in energy production, will you end up with more energy if you invest that into gasoline production, or into ethanol production? The answer is gasoline production, by a wide margin. And I have demonstrated that numerous times, using the pro-ethanol USDA’s own numbers. I repeat: I am using pro-ethanol sources for my analyses. So accuse me of bias if you wish, but that doesn’t change the numbers.

Which brings us to the claim of a yield of nearly 70% more energy than it took to produce. I wonder if Dinneen knows (or cares?) how the USDA paper arrived at this number. I am going to show you how they did, and cite the reports so you can check for yourself. I analyzed the reports in detail here, using their own numbers to show what they did. You can read the analysis for yourself, but here’s the executive summary.

In 2002, the USDA reported on the energy balance of corn ethanol, stating that the energy balance was 1.34 units of energy out for every unit in. As I showed, they did a little accounting trick to get that, as the real number – when full BTU credit was taken for the animal feed by-products – was 1.27. Minor quibble, but it made me alert for more accounting tricks. And we got them in a report released 2 years later.

In their 2004 report, the USDA acknowledged that they had grossly underestimated a number of energy inputs in the 2002 report. So, they corrected those numbers. But some energy inputs had gone down, and at the end of the day, the energy inputs/outputs in the 2004 report were about the same as in the 2002 report. Yet in the 2004 report, they reported that the energy ratio for ethanol was 1.67, which is where Mr. Dinneen got his number.

Now, what was it really? Look at Table 3 in the 2004 USDA report. I will just produce it for you so you can see for yourself:

Table 1. 2004 USDA Report Showing the Energy Return for Corn Ethanol at 1.06.

I know that’s kind of hard to read, but here’s what it says. (You can always check out the original if you think I am pulling any funny business). The energy produced in a wet mill process is only 2% greater than the energy it took to produce the ethanol. And I would point out that things like topsoil and aquifer depletion, energy to build the ethanol plant, etc. were not part of the analysis. (They said they didn’t have good information, so they just omitted any attempt to account for it). For a dry mill process, they reported that the energy return is 1.10, 10% energy produced, and the weighted average of the two is 1.06. Those are the raw, unmanipulated numbers. In other words, input 1 BTU of fossil fuels, output 1.06 BTUs of ethanol. And given the subsidy for ethanol, it should be clear that this is actually a subsidy for fossil fuels, which is responsible for nearly all of ethanol’s BTUs.

In Table 4, to the right, you can see the manipulated numbers, and the energy return of 1.67. So, how did they do that?

What they have done, is they have lowered the energy inputs into the ethanol process by a great deal. And the way they did that was to change their methodology. Instead of taking a credit for by-products, what they did was increase the energy alloted to the by-product. By doing this, they subtracted the energy inputs allocated to ethanol, and therefore manipulated the answer.

There is no reason that they couldn’t have boosted the energy return to any number they wanted, just by allocating more and more of the energy inputs to the by-products. I could boost the energy return to infinity by allocating all of the energy inputs to the by-product. It makes the by-product energy return look horrible, but it artificially boosts the ethanol energy return. And they aren’t reporting the by-product energy return, so you have to pay close attention to see exactly what they did.

Dried distillers grain (DDGS) has become a good dumping ground for the ethanol industry’s claims. When you point out that the energy balance is poor, they take a BTU credit for DDGS, just as if you could put in in your car and drive. But they have now figured out that they place more of the “blame” of energy of production into the DDGS and exaggerate the energy return for ethanol. But you can’t have it both ways. If the energy of production gets dumped into DDGS, it suddenly becomes a by-product with an incredibly high energy cost to produce.

Bottom line: Playing with the numbers doesn’t change the fact that ethanol production is marginally above energy neutral. Despite Mr. Dinneen’s claim that this is a “misconception offered by ethanol novices“, it is in fact true, based on the USDA’s own numbers. Mr. Dinneen and those who repeat the 1.67 number are either misinformed, or purposely misleading the public.

Mr. Dinneen concludes with:

It is entirely appropriate to have a debate about our energy policy in this country.

I agree. Here’s my proposal. Three rounds, 2,000 word limit per round, with the debate hosted here, at your site, and at The Oil Drum. I suggest the debate resolution: “Corn Ethanol is Responsible Energy Policy.” I will take the negative. If you have an alternate proposal, I would be glad to entertain it.


1. Shapouri, H., J.A. Duffield, and M. Wang. 2002. The Energy Balance of Corn Ethanol: An Update. AER-814. Washington, D.C.: USDA Office of the Chief Economist.

2. Shapouri, H., J.A. Duffield, and M. Wang. 2004. The 2001 Net Energy Balance of Corn Ethanol. Washington, D.C.: USDA Office of the Chief Economist.