Debunking Robert Zubrin
A reader asked me a while back to take a look at the claims of Robert Zubrin, and comment. So I took a look at his claims, and while I found things that I felt were wrong, I was generally in agreement on his big picture stuff. I concluded with:
Overall, Zubrin is not completely in left field. He strays out there now and then, but his methanol argument is OK. I don’t consider him at all a crackpot…
But today he stepped out onto thinner ice with an editorial that spoke out in favor of our current biofuel policies:
Let’s have a look:
Let’s start with the allegedly misbegotten incentives. The United States invests roughly $3 billion a year through a 51-cent per gallon credit to promote the production and use of renewable fuels like ethanol. The return on that investment? Taxpayers are saving approximately $6 billion that would otherwise be spent on counter-cyclical crop price supports, plus an additional $15 billion reduction in the country’s petroleum import bill.
First off, that $3 billion is based on 6 billion gallons of production. That number is now in the rear view mirror. There is no cap on the level of subsidy, so it just keeps growing as the production grows. If we could possibly get to that 36 billion gallon number, we would be spending $18.4 billion per year. Note that this is just direct federal subsidies. There are various state subsidies as well that add to the total subsidy pie.
And to get the number above, Zubrin assumes 6 billion gallons of ethanol production. How much oil will that displace? The BTU value of a barrel of ethanol is just over half that of a barrel of oil. Say 1 barrel of ethanol is equal to about 0.55 barrels of oil. Then the 6 billion gallons of ethanol is worth 3.3 billion gallons of oil (78.6 million barrels). At today’s price of nearly $110/bbl, that only comes out to be $8.6 billion.
But there’s more. Per the most recent USDA publication on the issue, to produce one BTU of ethanol takes over 0.9 BTUs of fossil fuel. Mostly it’s natural gas, but there is some diesel and gasoline for farm trucks and tractors. So let’s say 0.7 BTUs of natural gas and 0.2 BTUs of diesel. That means within that $8.6 billion of “savings”, we still have about $5.3 billion of fossil fuels. (See Calculations at the end).
So Zubrin’s $15 billion savings is down to about $3 billion. On the other hand, there is a value for the DDGS which will add back to the savings, but it falls far short of the number that Zubrin is using to justify the subsidy. But we also haven’t counted up any of the negative externalities, and probably the most important point – you still have to pay for the ethanol. All we have done is add up the fossil fuel inputs. Add up the other costs (water usage, for instance) and Zubrin’s “savings” are now a deficit, but one that is going into certain Midwest states at the expense of everyone else.
Continuing to meander onto the thin ice, Zubrin writes:
Numerous well-documented studies have shown that by replacing oil with fuel made from biomass, America is reducing its net carbon dioxide emissions and thereby taking a bite out of global warming.
Numerous others have shown otherwise. The most recent studies have shown otherwise. And of course the recent Science articles show otherwise. Which to believe?
The claims that biofuel production in the United States might indirectly encourage rainforests to be cut down were published recently in the hallowed pages of the journal Science. But it turns out that “scientific avalanche” is itself being demolished. The studies published in Science offered no new data to substantiate their claim of a causal connection between U.S. ethanol and forest destruction – just a theoretical model that has since been roundly debunked by respected researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory and Biomass Program.
Let me make sure I understand this. The theoretical model for the study in Science has been “roundly debunked” by Argonne? First, Argonne is using a theoretical model as well. Second, note the strong language in the debunking: Michael Wang writes “At this time, it is not clear what land-use changes could occur globally as a result of U.S. corn ethanol production.” Whoa! What a debunking. You publish your study in Science, I reply with “Beats me”, and that’s a debunking! And by the way, was the Argonne model published in a “the hallowed pages of the journal Science” as was the study it presumes to debunk? Was it peer-reviewed? Why no, it wasn’t.
So on the one hand I have a model from one of the top universities in the U.S. The researchers, formerly ethanol supporters, have no apparent axe to grind against ethanol. The paper is published in the premier peer-reviewed scientific journal. On the other hand I have a model that comes from a political agency in an administration that is very supportive of ethanol – written by Michael Wang, who has a history of publishing pro-ethanol studies – and a model that was not peer-reviewed in any scientific journal. Tough call.
Meanwhile, real world data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture simultaneously belie claims that American ethanol is causing arable land to be cleared elsewhere and food prices to rise. In fact, the data show that the total acreage devoted to corn in America is not projected to go up, but that annual corn yields are expected to rise steadily – from 155.3 bushels per acre this year to 173.3 bushels per acre in 2017.
They projected that, did they? You know how they make those projections? They use a model. Did the model predict that grain stocks would be at the low levels they are at today?
Those steady corn supplies are just one reason you can’t blame ethanol for food price increases.
You forgot the word “projected.” Those were “projected steady corn supplies.” You know, from the model. Yet you are treating these as actual data points.
If there is any problem with biofuels it is that America needs to produce more, not less, to put an end to the pick-pocketing of our national purse by OPEC.
If this were qualified by specifying methanol from gasification – as your earlier essays indicated – it wouldn’t be a big deal. Coming toward the end of a defense of corn ethanol based on half-baked claims, it isn’t a logical conclusion.
I think Zubrin’s defense of ethanol in this case is unfortunate, because I think he has a contribution to make if he will stick to ideas that are actually defensible and stop defending that which isn’t. Biofuels can be defended — in my opinion — but not like this.
To conclude, I want to emphasize that I think Zubrin has done a lot of good in pushing for wider adoption of methanol as a transportation fuel. I also agree with his pursuit of the Open Fuel Standard, which we do need in order to reduce U.S. dependence upon OPEC. But I think his defense of ethanol in this case was not objective.
Assumptions and Calculations
The basis is six billion gallons of ethanol
One gallon contains 76,000 BTUs
One gallon has an embedded 76,000 (0.7) = 53,200 BTUs of natural gas
Today’s price of natural gas is $10/MMBTU (abnormally high, but so are oil prices)
Then in one gallon of ethanol, there is ($10/1e6)*53200 = $0.53 of natural gas
One gallon has an embedded 76,000 (0.2) = 15,200 BTUs of diesel
Today’s (spot, not retail) price of diesel is $3/gallon.
One gallon of diesel has 130,000 BTUs.
Then in one gallon of ethanol, there is (15,200/130,000)*$3 = $0.35 of diesel
Thus, in one gallon of ethanol we find embedded $0.88 of fossil fuels.
In six billion gallons, there is an embedded $5.3 billion.