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Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Bobs--Corn Ethanol's Dynamic Duo

Photo courtesy of Chuckumentary via Flickr

"Could it be the unholy alliance between oil interests and environmentalists?"--Bob Dinneen, CEO of the RFA

*Bob Dinneen (the Bob on the right) is the CEO of the RFA, a corn ethanol propaganda mill lobbying organization that never prints the word "corn" next to the word "ethanol." Note also that he has dropped the whole "energy independence" canard for a new one called "reduce America's reliance on oil." This is because ethanol exports (including some to the Middle East) are going ballistic because ethanol refiners are getting a better price from foreign consumers. Bob's job is to attack anything and anyone critical of corn ethanol.

One tactic used is to publicly denigrate individual researchers who have findings not conducive to corn ethanol:

Environmentalists who have attacked ethanol on the basis of ILUC have relied, almost exclusively, on a highly speculative study by non-scientist, Tim Searchinger.

By my count, this "non-scientist" has been published five times in the prestigious journal Science (including the above referenced study), an honor most researchers don't obtain once in their entire careers. Brace yourself Science, you are undoubtedly next on the RFA hit list.

However, the latest research by Purdue University reflects the scientific community's rejection of Searchinger's initial paper that brought the ILUC issue to the front burner in February 2008. Since then, the estimated emissions purportedly occurring from ILUC penalty have fallen by nearly 90%. Rather than acknowledge the evolution of the science, Big Oil's environmentalists say nothing.

Here we have Bob trying to cherry pick his science. In this case he picks a study from Purdue University (my Alma Matter) which he claims contradicts Searchinger (and by the way, it is done by economists, not scientists). Following are some direct quotes from those Purdue researchers:

"...with almost a third of the US corn crop today going to ethanol, it is simply not credible to argue that there are no land use change implications of corn ethanol."

" that ethanol could be a somewhat better option than previously thought for reducing greenhouse gas emissions."

"The third simulation, which Tyner said is probably the most accurate, reduces the amount of carbon dioxide that would be emitted by about 10 percent. But he warned that the numbers are still uncertain because the model contains many complex relationships..."
I don't link to Dinneen's rant because I don't want to draw traffic to it because that will just encourage the publisher to allow him to post more rants to draw more traffic to generate more ad revenue. I parse the rest of his article below:

The slow and tepid response from the nation's major environmental organizations to the massive and devastating oil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico ...

He made that up of course. There was nothing slow or tepid about it. How do you know when a politician is lying? His lips are moving, and we are all painfully aware that corporate lobbyists are the ones pulling the strings that move those lips.

...stands in stark contrast to their sustained and voracious attacks on homegrown renewable fuels such as [corn] ethanol.

There is no "sustained and voracious" attack against ethanol. There is a lot of critique of corn ethanol policy, its costs to other citizens, and its environmental impacts and these critiques are coming from all over the place, not just from environmental groups (livestock farmers, food wholesalers, scientific researchers, duck hunters, recreation vehicle organizations, and on and on).

And corn ethanol isn't a "renewable" fuel. About 3/4 of the energy found in a gallon of corn ethanol comes from non-renewable fossil fuels. This is largely a process that converts coal and natural gas into ethanol. Note how he will not use the term "corn ethanol" even though that is what 99% of all ethanol used in this country is made out of.

Environmental organizations such as NRDC, Friends of the Earth and the Environmental Working Group have been working hand in glove with the National Petroleum Refiners Association to undermine expansion of America's renewable fuels industry.

He also made that up. The corn ethanol lobby just launched a gargantuan propaganda blitz to convince congress to reinstate the blender's subsidy, which is supposed to end this year. They want it extended another five years to the tune of about $34 billion taxpayer's dollars. The blender's credit is a bribe to petroleum refiners to blend more corn ethanol than they are already forced to blend by mandate laws. They get about fifty cents for every gallon of ethanol they blend into our gas supply. Click here to see my anti-propaganda propaganda blitz.

Oil companies already own a significant number of our corn ethanol refineries--liquid fuels are their bag, baby. They will own them all before it's over.

This should come as no surprise. Recently, The Nation magazine, not a bastion of conservative thought, in an extensive article highlighted the close relationship between major oil companies and some of the nation's major environmental organizations. "They [the environmental organizations] take money, and in turn they offer praise, even when the money comes from the companies causing environmental devastation." The article cites Christine MacDonald, author of Green, Inc., noting, "Not only do the largest conservation groups take money from companies deeply implicated in environmental crimes; they have become something like satellite PR offices for the corporations that support them."

Dinneen has cherry picked quotes from a diatribe he found in a liberal publication to support his own piece of crap. Liberals everywhere should be flattered that he thinks anything published in a liberal magazine must be accurate. The following is another quote from that article in the Nation:

I have stood in half-dead villages on the coast of Bangladesh while families point to a distant place in the rising ocean and say, "Do you see that chimney sticking up? That's where my house was... I had to [abandon it] six months ago."

Riiight, as if the ocean has risen enough in six months to cover an entire house ...eyes rolling.

This tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico is likely to be the largest ecological disaster our nation has ever experienced. It is likely to be worse than the Exxon Valdez and the 1969 Union blowout off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. The 1969 disaster helped mobilize the environmental movement, led to the first Earth Day in 1970 and paved the way for numerous environmental laws. Environmentalists focused on the importance of improving the safety of offshore oil drilling and called for ways to reduce America's reliance on oil.

In the above, he finally gets something right as he describes the oil spill and praises environmental organizations (the same ones who he attacks for opposing expansion of his corn ethanol product).

So far, this incident has only precipitated scorn from the environmental community toward those of us that had the temerity to state the obvious: if we invest more in renewable energy we wouldn't have to drill in ecologically-sensitive land or waters to begin with!

Not true. Most scorn is directed at offshore drilling although there certainly is some directed at lobbying organizations like the RFA for trying to take advantage of this disaster to hawk their product. Environmental organizations are all for investing more in renewable energy, but as I pointed out before, corn ethanol isn't renewable. Environmental organizations are against replacing oil with something that is in its own ways worse than oil.

Runoff from industrial agriculture is the primary driver of the Gulf of Mexico dead zone. It's a chronic unending, ongoing, slow-motion, ecological disaster that dwarfs this oil spill in size and longevity but does not make the headlines specifically because it is chronic and ongoing.

Could it be the unholy alliance between oil interests and environmentalists?

"Or could it be ...Satan?!" --Church Lady

This is what I would call (called) an unholy alliance:

Transgressing identified and quantified planetary boundaries

Environmentalists have spent millions of oil industry dollars to fight ethanol, concocting various strawmen and red herrings, namely Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC).

And again, not true. ILUC stands for indirect land use change. Dinneen wants you to believe that you can hand over thirty thousand square miles of land to corn ethanol that was being used for other things like wildlife habitat and various food crops without it causing farmers around the world to clear more land to make up for that loss of land to grow food instead of fuel. All you need is a modicum of common sense to see that.

Roughly a third of our corn crop was turned into fuel last year. Imagine the impact of turning it all into fuel. The same legislation that provided the subsidy bribe to oil companies to blend ethanol into our fuel supply set a limit of 15 billion gallons for corn ethanol's contribution to the ethanol supply for a reason. Otherwise, the RFA would happily turn all of our food into fuel.

That is why high-fructose corn syrup was invented and why corn has found its way into just about everything we eat. There is no other explanation for the fact that the price of corn has remained about twice as high as historical averages for the last three years even though farmers have planted historically high amounts of it. Typically when farmers plant huge amounts of corn the price drops because supply exceeds demand. Corn ethanol is making sure demand exceeds supply.

Second, and most unfortunately, this accident reminds us once again of the destructive power of oil. Are major environmental organizations so focused on climate change that they can avoid focusing on the devastation that an offshore oil accident can produce? Have they become so enamored with bringing Big Oil to the climate change negotiating table that they need to show their power by kicking ethanol, even when it is less polluting than oil [not true] and where a spill has little discernible or lasting impact on the environment [not true]? We hope that like a condemned man who finally sees the light, environmental organizations now realize that renewable ethanol [not true] represents a cleaner [not true], less polluting [not true] future.

Renewable ethanol is one thing, corn ethanol is another, the Gulf of Mexico dead zone is rather irrefutable evidence of corn ethanol's longevity and impact on the environment.

when compared to the search for, production, importation and consumption of oil. I for one am not holding my breath.

Riiight. This isn't about energy independence. It's about profit. European officials estimated that 80 percent of U.S. biodiesel production was exported in 2008 and corn ethanol exports are starting to surge as well. The corn ethanol industry will sell to the highest bidder, even if that bidder is in the Middle East. From Ethanol Producer Magazine:

Washington – Ethanol exports have boomed in recent months, with shipments destined for dozens of energy-thirsty nations around the globe, including some in the Middle East. The United States has been a net importer of ethanol for the last decade, but the nation is quickly evolving into a net exporter. While this is welcomed news to an industry looking for new markets, it serves to undermine the fundamental value of America’s ethanol industry as a domestic replacement for imported oil.

The RFA of course has cobbled together a new list of excuses for why they are now exporting fuel, you know, like, "Well if the government won't let us force more of this down our fellow citizen's throats while simultaneously forcing them to subsidize it, then we will just have to export it to the highest bidder." Which will always be true anytime there is a higher bidder offshore, regardless of how much we are forced to consume domestically. Short of making it illegal to export our energy independence, they will export it.

[Update 5/27/2010] A paper published in Ambio, the journal of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, found that by 2050 there will barely be enough land and water to grow enough food with nothing left over to grow biofuels:

Here, I adapted a chart found on the Oil Drum to show how we have to expand land use to meet biofuel mandates. It shows what will happen if we stay on our present course and don't usurp rainforests and grassland carbon sinks.

*Photo linked to RFA Flickr account. Taking bets this photo will soon disappear from that address.

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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Energy Crops--BTUs Per Acre

Photo Wikipedia

When it comes to energy produced per area of food cropland usurped, corn ethanol and soy biodiesel are the worst options available. If you want to obtain energy from the sun, your best option is to grow a crop of solar panels.

The solar farm above covers 150 acres. It nets sixty times more BTUs of energy per year than a corn crop used for ethanol and about 120 times more than a soy crop used for biodiesel. And you could still graze livestock around these panels to keep the weeds down. From a land use perspective, siting these on farmland is certainly suboptimal, but not nearly as suboptimal as converting food stock into liquid fuels.

I received an email the other day from someone who is an expert on certain market impacts of government policy:

The Connecticut General Assembly last week passed a bill requiring biodiesel to be blended with heating oil starting next year.(1)

He was perplexed by one of the provisions in this bill:

Before the mandate takes effect, the state commissioner of consumer protection, in consultation with a Distillate Advisory Board to be created under this bill, will determine whether there's enough in-state production of biodiesel to comply with the legislation.

Biofuel issues usually revolve around transportation because the portability and energy density of liquid fuels are best suited for things that move around. In this case it involves homes that use oil for heating. It makes no sense, environmentally or economically, for state governments to force citizens to purchase biofuels regardless of cost. If biodiesel cost less, consumers would already be using it. In the summer of 2008 biodiesel was selling for $6 a gallon. This is essentially a hidden tax on citizens and a form of wealth redistribution to farmers. Biofuel lobbyists have obviously gotten the ear of some politicians.

No politician would dream of increasing taxes at this point in time to fund something like this. So, instead, the cost is hidden in consumer fuel bills.

If global warming is the real concern, there is much more bang for the buck in solar or even better yet, home weatherization.

Connecticut is not known as an agricultural powerhouse, so this does not make a whole lot of sense the way it might in corn and soy growing states, where such legislation is being used by politicians to buy votes. The public is largely unaware of the futility and wastefulness of trying to displace oil by turning food into a liquid fuel.

Maria Cantwell recently introduced legislation in my home state to reinstate the dollar per gallon blending subsidy for biodiesel to placate the biodiesel refinery here. A back-room deal was struck where they would pretend to use oil grown in Washington State instead of importing the cheapest oil as the original business plan dictated (and why it is built on a port).

I recently attended a talk sponsored by the Northwest Biodiesel Board. An Eastern Washington professor, who was raised on a farm and had attempted his own biodiesel business, explained that politicians had not considered the Washington State farmer's ability to competitively grow corn and soy. The climate here favors other higher value crops like apples and cherries.

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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Why We Comb Our Lawns and Fertilize Our Hair

Photo courtesy of roel1943 via Flickr

Ah, did I get that backwards? Brace yourself. Here comes another of my thought exercises, again inspired by my latest reading of The Red Queen-Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature by Matt Ridley. Another word of warning--random bursts of dripping sarcasm can be found in places you may not always expect it.

Ever wonder why we feel compelled to comb our hair and fertilize our lawns?

We do it to look presentable of course, but why do we want to look presentable?

So others won't think poorly of us of course, but why do we care about what others think of us?

Because people are less likely to cooperate with other people who they don't like, for whatever reasons, duh.

In short, we comb our hair because we are social primates and cooperation is written into our genetic code--lone wolves tend to have harder lives.

Although evolution is based on competition we cooperate within groups to compete against other cooperating groups. A war between two armies is the ultimate competition but within each army you will find the ultimate in cooperation.

It doesn't matter if you wear a powdered wig or dye your hair green. What matters is that your hair conforms to whatever is considered acceptable for whatever reasons in whatever group you identify with.

Enough about hair. Lawns are what interest me and because lawns are largely a man's domain the rest of this essay will be mostly from a heterosexual male perspective.

Study after study has shown that women are rarely attracted by wealth and power. No, they are attracted to rippling abs, tight buns, and robust genitalia. They could care less if a man has a job. It is a mystery why men expend so much time working and maintaining their lawns and homes when they should be at the gym ...wearing spandex to highlight their packages.

Ahem ...lawns (as well as houses in general) are a form of status display. They tell others a lot about you. That brown weed patch juxtaposed next to a perfectly manicured green lawn tells passerby that the owner:

A) Does not care what you think about his lawn.

B) Does not have the means or energy to maintain it.

You can spot where the octogenarians (and drunkards) live in my neighborhood by the state of their lawns and houses.

Women may not realize it, but all men are engaged in an endless battle of one-upmanship. My planter strip (that area of grass between Seattle sidewalks and the street) had gotten out of control over the years. I'd one-upped my competitors years ago by dumping river rock on it and planting pampas grass in the middle of the pile. Boom! No mowing, no fertilizing, no watering, and I received a lot of compliments (from women) on how nice it looked.

However, over the years the pampas grass grew to take over the whole area, preventing people from getting out of their cars and filling the street with shed grass stems, thus degrading my stature. It was time for a new game plan.

Yards and houses as status displays can be a double-edged sword. One runs the risk of inadvertently displaying one's lack of creativity and smarts, which is why rich people hire others to design and maintain their homes.

My neighborhood is filled with examples of attempts to create attractive, yet low maintenance planter strips that back-fired badly. Instead of saying "Wow, this guy is creative and energetic," these planter strips say "Wow, this guy must be an idiot."

This is why rich people seek neighborhoods with covenants that forbid creativity. Best to let people suspect you have no creativity than to do your own landscaping and remove all doubt.

While working on my new planter strip, I was often visited by the other silverbacks in the neighborhood who offered pearls of advice as well as consolation, for the task that lay before me was not trivial. A gas powered weed eater with a saw blade on the end took care of the pampas grass, a pickax took care of the roots, and an ad in Craigslist got rid of the river rock.

I was of course leery of their advice, knowing full well they may be trying to trip me up. I think my new landscaping job is a success because I've notice that the other silverbacks have been spending a lot of time lately working on their planter strips. At a mostly subconscious level, men are a lot like male bowerbirds and lawns are their chick magnets.

So, what gives a manicured lawn higher status than a weed patch? I think it's because it displays one's ability or even willingness to control one's environment. Altering and controlling the environment is the hallmark of Homo sapiens. We alter our environment to suit us rather than adapt to an environment. Beavers do the same thing on a much smaller scale.

Wealthy or powerful individuals are able to commandeer the energies of other people to do their bidding. There are undoubtedly some octogenarians in my neighborhood who are wealthy enough to hire an army of gardeners and others to maintain their yards and homes and because of that I am unable to spot where they live.

This all relates to males attracting females. Human males tend to be mildly polygamous, given the chance. Some guys may fantasize about having a harem, but anti-polygamy laws are a good deal for the majority of men because rich guys historically tend to hog up all the women. Assuming you would not be the odd man out means you probably would be.

I recall watching an investigative piece on television where they visited a town in Utah where some wealthy individual had about a dozen wives. They interviewed another guy who had moved there so he could have multiple wives. Much to his chagrin, after years of trying, he was still single. He just didn't get it.

In the distant past, high-status, rich, powerful people had more children. That's not true anymore but the genes that promoted that behavior still reside inside of us, goading us to do strange things like, maintain our lawns and comb our hair.

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