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Sunday, April 5, 2009

Six things you probably didn't know



[Update: Take a gander at the comments on this NYT article published on 5/8/09. Commenter # 43 was called on the carpet by the Times journalist for not divulging his relationship to an ethanol company.]

  1. I have always voted Democrat.
  2. A 10 percent blend of ethanol in your full tank of gas will use enough corn to feed an adult for 40 days.
  3. Obama wants to increase the amount of corn ethanol in your tank to 15 percent (enough corn to feed a person for two months).
  4. The world population is expected to increase by about 50 percent (ten times the present population of the U.S.) in the next forty years.
  5. The number of chronically hungry human beings is approaching one billion souls for the first time in human history (over 3 times the population of the entire United States).
  6. At least eight peer-reviewed studies published in the last two years have found that today's food-based biofuels are worse for global warming than the fossil fuels they replace.


I took the above photo with my cell phone while filling up our Prius. Your elected politicians are forcing you to fuel your car with food. Why aren’t you morally outraged?



The above cartoon was created last summer by Michael Ramirez. And he wasn't the only cartoonist covering the topic. There were food riots in over thirty countries that summer. Big Biofuel tells us their product had nothing to do with it, but think about it. Although the corn ethanol lobby would happily do so if they could get away with it, no sane politician would back a plan to turn all of America's corn and soybean crops into biofuels. Doing so would starve millions of impoverished children around the world and wreak havoc on our food system. If turning all of it into biofuels would wreak havoc, turning a quarter of it into biofuels (which we just did last year) wreaks one quarter of that havoc.

Photo:toddehler via Flickr

Attempts to get consumers to use corn ethanol as a fuel have a long history in our country. It has been marketed under the names Alcoline, Agrol, Gasohol, and finally, E-85. Gasohol, which is a 10 percent blend of ethanol, was sold in the eighties. You got to decide if you wanted it or not and most people decided they didn't as the above picture attests. The ag and biofuel lobbyists got together with our politicians and found a way to fix that. They simply blend it into our gas without our permission and charge us an extra dollar a tank to subsidize the biofuel industry that is forcing this crappy fuel down our throats. I say crappy because, in so many words, that is what Consumer Reports concluded it was when they tested it.

Five bills are pending in Oregon to to scale back ethanol use. Now, why would you limit use of a fuel that exacerbates global warming and hunger in the third world, costs taxpayers an extra dollar per tank of gas, an extra 12 9 billion in food costs and over 10 billion dollars in lost gas mileage annually? [Update: A commenter pointed out an error in my calculations.]

The ethanol complaints tend to come from Republicans, but three of the bills have Democratic supporters. The politicians said they're hearing widespread complaints from voters.


The stereotypically well intentioned but math, science, and logic challenged local vocal environmentalists want to keep the ethanol blend. They think another 30 years of government support for this fuel will finally lead to a biofuel that isn't quite as destructive.

Just last week I met, along with two other people, with a local politician to lobby him to drop his city's use of a 40 percent blend of food-based biodiesel. He finally perked up when someone mentioned that dropping the biodiesel would save the city $350,000 annually. There was potential political gain to be had. As a politician, his next step should be to determine if banning of the biodiesel blend would make more political enemies than it would gain. The mayor of this city is a huge biodiesel proponent and the employee's retirement fund of this city invested ten million dollars last year in the largest biodiesel refinery on the West Coast, which is now on the edge of bankruptcy. All of the congress people in this State are huge proponents of biofuels.

A word of encouragement for this politician, as Washington State's King County Executive, Ron Sims stopped use of biodiesel in King County vehicles last year citing budgetary concerns. That move certainly didn't cost him any political points. He is now deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Maybe taking the moral high ground on this issue will be the politically smart thing to do in the future.

These fuels cannot make a dent in our fuel imports. Only high mileage cars and mass transit can do that. It took an area equal to all of the cropland in Indiana (almost a quarter of our corn crop) to replace a mere 4% of our fuel supply last year.

The real question is, will the Democrats cede that moral high ground to the Republicans?

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12 comments:

  1. Here are some notes for my calculations:

    About 9.25 billion gallons of ethanol were blended in 2008. 0.51 cents x 9.25 billion = 4.7 billion dollars in subsidies

    140.5 billion gallons of gasoline consumed in 2008

    9.25/140.5 = 6.6% average blend. If an 85% mixture drops mileage 27%, a 6.6 % blend will drop it 2%.

    A 6.6 percent ethanol blend will result in a 2 percent drop in gas mileage. This caused Americans to buy an extra 2% of gas in 2008. Average price of gas in 2008= $3.30.

    Extra money spent on gas = $3.3x140.5 billion x 0.02 =9.3 billion

    If you accept the USDA claim that ethanol accounted for 3% of food price increases for 2008 and that Americans spend about $3.7/day on food in 2008: 3.67/day on food x365 x 300,000,000 Americans x 3 percent = 12 billion extra on food

    4.7+9.3+12=26 billion cost to taxpayers.

    If you accept the USDA claim that ethanol accounted for 3% of food price increases for 2008 and that Americans spend about $3.7/day on food in 2008: 3.67/day on food x365 x 300,000,000 Americans x 3 percent = 12 billion extra on food

    Values input to spreadsheet:

    25-gallon SUV gas tank.
    2300 calories per person
    2.7 gal ethanol per bushel
    56 pounds/bushel corn
    453.59 grams/pound
    Corn has 3.8 calories per gram
    3.80 x 453.59 =1723.6 cal/pound

    Sources:
    http://gas2.org/2008/05/22/usda-says-ethanol-accounts-for-only-3-of-increased-cost-of-food/
    http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/01/12/business/main4714157.shtml
    http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/dnav/pet/hist/m_epooxe_yop_nus_1m.htm
    http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/dnav/pet/hist_xls/WGFUPUS2w.xls
    http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/dnav/pet/hist/mg_tt_usw.htm
    http://www.ers.usda.gov/Publications/EIB23/
    http://www.technologyreview.com/Biztech/20226/?a=f

    ReplyDelete
  2. Anonymous1:49 PM

    Hello Russ:

    Please post an update of your hybrid bike; the durability of the bike (that many readers criticized as too low-end) and the batteries.

    Have you done any upgrades, etc.?

    Thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I will make it the subject of my next post. It's running great.

    ReplyDelete
  4. shovelready3:29 PM

    "These fuels cannot make a dent in our fuel imports. Only high mileage cars and mass transit can do that."

    Wrong: the destruction of the national currency will do the trick.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Anonymous1:56 PM

    Mr. Finley,

    For someone who seems to be so environmentally conscious and liberal (which also means you should be anti-war), I can't believe you are buying into the propaganda being spun by Big Oil. Let me preface my counter-argument by saying your math seems simple and straightforward on the surface, but it is fatally flawed.

    First of all, if we didn't have that 6.6% average ethanol blend in our fuel supply, that would cause an increase of 9.273 (140.5 billion x 6.6%) billion gallons of gasoline additionally purchased to fill that void. This more than covers the 2% decrease in mileage which you have calculated based on the assumption that there is a linear relationship between an 85% ethanol blend's efficiency and a 10% ethanol blend's efficiency - which I do not see any evidence of.

    Second, you make references to using our corn for fuel instead of food. This bothers me, because corn exports for the last couple of years have been at historically record high levels, in spite of corn also being used for ethanol production. Furthermore, you seem to ignore the fact that corn ethanol uses only the starch portion of the corn, and the solid byproduct leftover makes a great feed for livestock and displaces about 1/3 of the corn required for ethanol production.

    Third, if ethanol accounts for only 3% of the INCREASE in the cost of food, then you have to base your math on the amount of the INCREASE - not on the total amount spent. This would lower your "extra amount spent on food because of ethanol" by at least an order of magnitude.

    May I close with this statement: We can choose to pursue things like Hydrogen (which causes increased electricity usage... and therefore more pollution from coal-burning electric plants) or electric vehicles (see previous statement for why that's not a great solution), or simply try to cut back on the amount of oil we use. OR... we could develop this great American fuel, ethanol, which uses renewable resources from our own country, is available now and works well with our existing transportation infrastructure and lifestyle. Ethanol is a key ingredient to reducing our dependence on dangerous foreign oil. Ethanol has many positive qualities: it burns cleaner and cooler, and has a higher octane rating (allowing development of smaller, higher-compression engines which develop more power than gasoline-only engines can). Using more ethanol and less foreign oil means we don't have to waste lives and resources defending land in the middle-east just to keep our economy from collapsing under the crushing grip of OPEC. You should be all for that.

    I urge you to consider the points I've made here; do some more research, seeking out not only negatively-biased articles, but positive ones, too. I think you will come to realize that you've been misled... that ethanol really is a great step in the right direction and you're being too harsh, making too many false assumptions about it.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Scott2:15 PM

    I wish I had time to study all of your number-crunching, but one obvious flaw I would like point out is multiplying total food costs by 3%. Even though you state it's 3% OF the INCREASE -- which was about 5% last year. So 3% OF 5%. That's a major difference, don't you think? You can overwhelm people with lots of numbers, calculations, links, etc. But a simple mistake like that knocks credibility a little...

    ReplyDelete
  7. Scott,

    You can't overwhelm readers with links to reliable sources. It beats innuendo and hearsay. The 3% calculation you found in my comment was cut and pasted form old notes and is in error. That is what commenters are all about and that is why blogs beat newspapers hands down.

    Understand that the Renewable Fuels Standard set a limit on subsidies for corn ethanol for a reason. The number chosen was based on an educated guess at what voters would accept in the way of food price increases. Everyone, from the USDA on fully expected food prices to increase.

    The Department of Energy and the Department of Agriculture are very much in favor of turning food into fuel because the politicians they serve buy votes from the farm belt with the gargantuan subsidies paid for by other taxpayers. But the price of food is only part of corn ethanol's problem. It exacerbates the Gulf of Mexico dead zone and global warming, destroys biodiversity and costs taxpayers billions in other ways than food.

    The Congressional Budget Office reported this week that "…food stamps and child nutrition programs are expected to cost up to $900 million more this year because of increased ethanol use."

    That same CBO report says that ethanol contributed about 0.5 to 0.8 percentage points (or 10-15 percent) of the 5.1 percent increase in food prices from April 2007 to April 2008, which is a lot different than what the USDA claimed last year.

    If you assume roughly 28 million people are using food stamps and that roughly 17 million children receive lunch assistance at school 9 months out of the year, you can extrapolate that $900 million number to the American populace, which is roughly 306 million. Doing so, I find that Americans are still paying roughly 8 billion dollars in extra food costs from corn ethanol. It is more complex than that I'm sure. You have to assume for example, that your average overweight American does not eat more than school children and those on food stamps etc.

    Last year the USDA held a press conference to assure Americans that corn ethanol was not playing the biggest role in their skyrocketing food prices. Here are some quotes from that press conference:

    "One of USDA's missions is to make sure the American people have access to safe, abundant and affordable fuel supplies."

    Exactly when did the Department of Agriculture become responsible for supplying Americans with abundant and affordable fuel?

    …and corn ethanol is responsible for "…3 percent of the more than 40 percent increase we have seen in world food prices."

    In all honesty, I can see why your average American could give a shit about damaging the developing brains of hundreds of millions of impoverished black and Asian kids via malnutrition by increasing the price for the basic grains they subsist on by 1.2 percent by turning American grain into car fuel but this is starting to hit home.

    According to this article "11.9 million people went hungry in the United States at some point last year. That included nearly 700,000 children, up more than 50 percent from the year before."

    Here is a report from last year that exposes the slight of hand used by the USDA at the press conference:

    "…the analysis cited by Lazear counts only corn that is directly consumed by humans, a relatively small part of the overall usage of corn, Elam noted. By far the most corn in the United States and in other countries is used in livestock and poultry feed and is thus consumed by humans indirectly in the form of meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products."

    ReplyDelete
  8. Mr. Anonymous

    Let me summarize your post: Corn ethanol does not reduce gas mileage, increase the cost of food, exacerbate global warming, displace rainforests or cost the American consumer a penny regardless of how much corn we use to make it. Since you don't seem to read many peer reviewed science articles, here are three lay press articles from last year that did a reasonable job of summarizing the science available at the time:

    Biofuels Deemed a Greenhouse Threat

    The Clean Energy Scam

    Doing it wrong


    "I can't believe you are buying into the propaganda being spun by Big Oil."

    Am I buying Big Oil's propaganda or are you buying Big Biofuel's? Think about that for a moment. Big Oil is rapidly buying up biofuel refineries. Big Biofuel is already almost indistinguishable from big oil with a propaganda machine that is even worse. Our biofuel policy is a rare bipartisan debacle. Bush was America's number one ethanol fan.

    Following is a quote from an expert on government subsidy policy:

    "...No surprise: the oil industry’s core business is marketing liquid fuels. It is a myth that: (a) ethanol is making inroads into the dominance of the oil companies; and (b) that the oil industry universally opposes biofuels. At most, they oppose biofuels they don’t control. The ethanol scam is about keeping the internal combustion and liquid-fuel machines going. Don’t forget: the biofuels industry DEPENDS on the distribution infrastructure of the oil industry, and the fact that 200+ million vehicles run on liquid fuels. What really scares Big Oil is deep conservation, and the prospect of electrified transport...."

    If America is destined to use bioethanol, it will eventually come from cane in the tropics, not from corn. Take a look at the incredible difference:

    Net energy yield of biofuels

    If we become dependent on ethanol we will be fighting wars for control of cane fields where the Cerrado and Amazon used to be instead of oil fields in desserts.

    First of all, if we didn't have that 6.6% average ethanol blend in our fuel supply, that would cause an increase of 9.273 (140.5 billion x 6.6%) billion gallons of gasoline additionally purchased to fill that void. This more than covers the 2% decrease in mileage which you have calculated…

    Consumers purchased 9.27 billion gallons of ethanol instead of gas for roughly the same rack price saving not a penny at the gas station. We did not spend any less money at the gas pump because we were buying ethanol mixed with gas. So, the 2% mileage penalty and its associate cost is real.


    "… based on the assumption that there is a linear relationship between an 85% ethanol blend's efficiency and a 10% ethanol blend's efficiency - which I do not see any evidence of.

    The evidence is right before your eyes. Consumer Reports demonstrated that the higher the ethanol blend, the worse your mileage gets. The car they tested on e85 took a 27% mileage hit. Ethanol in today's cars hurts gas mileage, which costs consumers money because they are paying as much and more for the ethanol as they are the gas.

    "Second, you make references to using our corn for fuel instead of food. This bothers me, because corn exports for the last couple of years have been at historically record high levels, in spite of corn also being used for ethanol production.

    What should really bother you is that even though exports have been at record high levels, the USDA says that ethanol still raised the price of food to the poor around the world as the above links supplied to Scott document. Go argue with the USDA, not me.

    "Furthermore, you seem to ignore the fact that corn ethanol uses only the starch portion of the corn, and the solid byproduct leftover makes a great feed for livestock and displaces about 1/3 of the corn required for ethanol production."

    I have not to my knowledge ignored the impact of distiller's grains in my calculations.


    "Third, if ethanol accounts for only 3% of the INCREASE in the cost of food, then you have to base your math on the amount of the INCREASE - not on the total amount spent. This would lower your "extra amount spent on food because of ethanol" by at least an order of magnitude."

    You and Scott have focused on the calculations in my comment, which were cut and pasted from old notes after the fact and most of them have nothing to do with this particular article. The 3% value was in error as noted in my comment to Scott. Be sure to read my response to Scott because the CBO is now saying that corn ethanol is increasing costs for child nutrition and food stamps by roughly a billion dollars this year, which extrapolates to about 9 billion a year for the general populace

    "May I close with this statement: We can choose to pursue things like Hydrogen (which causes increased electricity usage... and therefore more pollution from coal-burning electric plants) or electric vehicles (see previous statement for why that's not a great solution), or simply try to cut back on the amount of oil we use."

    Hydrogen will never successfully compete as a car transport fuel without massive government support because it costs too much, which should sound familiar to you because neither would corn ethanol for the same reason. Remove government subsidies and mandates today and corn ethanol as a fuel (not as an anti-knock additive) would disappear from the market in a year.

    See this chart for a GHG abatement cost reality check.

    See this graphic for a comparison of corn ethanol, cellulosic (forever just five years away from economic viability) and solar.

    Go here to see the corn ethanol refinery death watch.

    "OR... we could develop this great American fuel, ethanol, which uses renewable resources from our own country, is available now and works well with our existing transportation infrastructure and lifestyle".

    Lifestyle? We drive pickups and SUVs primarily because they are hip. The term SUV was a wildly successful marketing coup that got us to happily drive big clunky station wagons with oversize tires. SUVs are rarely used for sport or utility and most pickups haul nothing more than an occasional bag of beauty bark or golf clubs.

    "Ethanol is a key ingredient to reducing our dependence on dangerous foreign oil."

    Last time you commented I tried to get you to define what kind of fuel you are talking about. You can't just say 'ethanol." Are you talking about cane ethanol from Brazil or Africa, corn ethanol, or cellulosic ethanol (the fuel forever just five years away)? I'm going to assume you are talking about corn ethanol since that is the only ethanol we use here. Corn ethanol by all accounts is rapidly hitting its limits. It took an area equal to all of the cropland in Indiana last year to add 4-5% to our fuel supply. It exacerbated global warming, barely provided more energy than it consumed, and cost us billions. There are much better ways to reduce oil imports.

    "Ethanol has many positive qualities: it burns cleaner and cooler, "

    Ethanol is probably as bad or worse than gasoline as far as total air pollutants are concerned. See this study:

    "…because of the uncertainty in future emission regulations, it can be concluded with confidence only that E85 is unlikely to improve air quality over future gasoline vehicles."

    "…and has a higher octane rating (allowing development of smaller, higher-compression engines which develop more power than gasoline-only engines can)."

    It is true that engines specially designed for very high compression ratios can make use of the higher octane characteristics of ethanol to develop more power but because ethanol has less energy than gasoline, developing that power will still come with a mileage penalty.

    A company called Scania has what is essentially a diesel engine (extremely high compression ratio) modified to burn ethanol. It gets roughly the same thermal efficiency as a diesel (43%) but burns about 70% more ethanol than diesel.

    It is easy to confuse the terms "power" and "efficiency." Power is the ability to release a lot of energy quickly, which is important to racecar drivers, young men in drift cars, and older men having mid-life crises. It comes at the expense of fuel economy. Efficiency is the ability to go places using the minimum amount of energy to do so. A Prius engine uses the Atkinson cycle that trades power for efficiency but thanks to electric assist it has far more torque available when needed than a 2009 diesel Jetta.

    The "advantage" of ethanol you refer to is the ability to get more power with a higher compression ratio, but because ethanol still has less energy per gallon than gas you still get less mileage (efficiency):

    Source: http://www.autobloggreen.com/2007/01/07/detroit-auto-show-saab-biopower-concept/

    "... It runs on 100 percent ethanol [the Saab high-compression Biopower engine], and because of that it gets more power than its gasoline powered equivalent. However, the trade off, of course, is that because it uses ethanol only, the engine alone provides less fuel efficiency...."

    …about 12% less mileage in this case, which is better than the more typical 30% less mileage. So they have an engine that gets more power but worse gas mileage. In theory, if you build an engine capable of jamming enough ethanol and oxygen into a chamber (high compression) you can get the same mileage as gas. Nobody has done that yet and doing so would force you to use ethanol because other fuels would pre-ignite.

    "Using more ethanol and less foreign oil means we don't have to waste lives and resources defending land in the middle-east just to keep our economy from collapsing under the crushing grip of OPEC. You should be all for that."

    We buy a relatively small percentage of our oil from the Middle East and an even smaller percentage from Iraq. Oil is fungible. If we stopped buying oil from the Middle East someone else would buy it. Mutually beneficial trade helps to prevent wars. Should we cut our dependency on foreign-made cars as well?

    As I have said before, if we are going to fuel cars with bioethanol, cane will be the main source because it is vastly more efficient. The Cerrado and Amazon are vast and will go under the plow to maintain our "lifestyle." It is naïve to think biofuels will end human warfare over resources.

    "I urge you to consider the points I've made here; do some more research, seeking out not only negatively-biased articles, but positive ones, too. I think you will come to realize that you've been misled... that ethanol really is a great step in the right direction and you're being too harsh, making too many false assumptions about it."

    May I urge you to do more research and to stop seeking only positively biased articles. Read a little peer reviewed science while you are at it. Has it not dawned on you yet that you have been misled? I countered your hearsay with links to many sources. All we have are the strengths of our arguments and the quality and quantity of our sources. Readers will just have to judge for themselves who is making too many false statements. Debate is for the audience. The participants never change their opinions.

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  9. And if I have not said enough, take the time to read The Politics of Biofuels written by Robert Rapier over a year ago.

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  10. Scott6:29 AM

    my point about overwhelming the reader with links, numbers, etc exactly. If only I didn't have a job so I had time to read your novels.

    ReplyDelete
  11. True that. If Darwin had a job he would never have discovered the theory of evolution.

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  12. There is some real magic coming out of the Asian Pacific Biochar Conference;
    15 ear per stalk corn, with 250% yield increase,

    Sacred Trees & chickens raised from near death,

    and multiple confirmation of Biochar soils 80%- 90%reduction of GHG emissions.

    ReplyDelete

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