Someone by the name of F William Engdahl has recently written an article for the Asia Times. This however is not just any article, it is probably THE IDEAL example of an article based on faulty data and misinformation about ethanol. Here I am going to go through a lot of his arguments against ethanol and disprove them one by one. I will quote his statements and then provide a rebuttal with a source (most of the sources can actually be found in previous articles that have been discussed on this site). Don’t get me wrong, there are some valid and descent reasons to be against the mass production of ethanol, Engdahl however seems to get almost everything wrong.
” The center of Bush’s program, announced in his January State of the Union address, is called “20 in 10″, cutting US gasoline use 20% by 2010. The official reason is to “reduce dependency on imported oil”, as well as cutting unwanted “greenhouse gas” emissions. That isn’t the case, but it makes good PR. Repeat it often enough and maybe most people will believe it. Maybe they won’t realize their taxpayer subsidies to grow ethanol corn instead of feed corn are also driving the price of their daily bread through the roof.”
The most often repeated and first major argument of Engdahl’s is that corn ethanol competing with food increases the price of food and that is why food prices have increased so much in the past 18 months. In fact the main reason that the cost of food has gone up so drastically as of late is because of the rising cost of oil. This is because the cost of the actual corn is only a tiny percentage of the total cost of the food that we consume. To confirm this assessment I would refer interested readers and Mr. Engdahl to this report.
“The late American satirist Mark Twain once quipped, “Buy land: They’ve stopped making it.” Today we can say almost the same about corn, or all grains worldwide. The world is in the early months of the greatest sustained rise in prices for all major grains, including maize, wheat and rice, that we have seen in three decades. Those three crops constitute almost 90% of all grains cultivated in the world.”
When the cost of corn (the main ingredient in corn flakes) accounts for a mere 5% of the total cost of the box of cereal, even if the cost of corn doubles again next year it would still only increase the cost of your box of cornflakes by roughly $.20. This is not going to break anyone’s bank. The 90% figure is sensationalist and doesn’t matter even a little to basic supply/demand as anyone who has taken econ 101 can tell you.
“No advocate of the ethanol boondoggle addresses the huge social cost that is beginning to hit the dining-room tables across the US, Europe and the rest of the world. Food prices are exploding as corn, soybeans and all cereal-grain prices are going through the roof because of the astronomical – US Congress-driven – demand for corn to burn for biofuel.”
Correlation does not imply causation.
“Biofuel – gasoline or other fuel produced from refining food products – is being touted as a solution to the controversial global-warming problem. Leaving aside the faked science and the political interests behind the sudden hype about dangers of global warming, biofuels offer no net positive benefits over oil even under the best conditions.”
This is actually almost true, certain studies indicate that there is close to no net positive benefits from corn ethanol, others indicate slight benefits (generally no more than 30% however). Here is a study which likely is close to the truth. “For GHG emissions, E85 produced by dry milling achieves a 19% reduction, and E85 produced by wet milling achieves a 14% reduction.”
You also completely (and conveniently) neglect the expected carbon emission reductions associated with cellulosic ethanol:”Under the near-future case, for E85, woody cellulosic ethanol reduces petroleum use by
70%, GHG emissions by 102%, and fossil energy consumption by 79%.”
GHG = Green House Gas.
“Big Oil is also driving the biofuels bandwagon. Professor David Pimentel of Cornell University and other scientists claim that net energy output from bio-ethanol fuel is less than the fossil-fuel energy used to produce the ethanol. Measuring all energy inputs to produce ethanol, from production of nitrogen fertilizer to energy needed to clean the considerable waste from biofuel refineries, Pimintel’s research showed a net energy loss of 22% for biofuel – they use more energy than they produce. That translates into little threat to oil demand and huge profit for clever oil giants that re-profile themselves as “green energy” producers. “
Joke: What happens when you use crop yield and conversion efficiency data from the 70s when trying to do a life cycle analysis for today?
Punchline: You get data today that would have been a useful argument against ethanol during the 70s!
From the department of energy:
“The most official study of the issue, which also reviews other studies, concludes that the “net energy balance” of making fuel ethanol from corn grain is 1.34; that is, for every unit of energy that goes into growing corn and turning it into ethanol, we get back about one-third more energy as automotive fuel. That may not sound impressive, but bear in mind that while the gasoline that ethanol displaces is largely imported and a high-level pollution source, the mix of energy inputs for producing bioethanol includes much domestic and relatively cleaner energy. On the basis of liquid fuels alone, the net balance is 6.34 (USDA Office of Energy Policy and New Uses, The Energy Balance of Corn Ethanol: An Update).”
Also, the energy balance from sugar cane is between 8:1 and 10:1.
“The bio-ethanol architects did their homework, we can be assured. It’s increasingly clear that the same people who brought us oil-price inflation are now deliberately creating parallel food-price inflation. We have had a rise in average oil prices of some 300% since the end of 2000 when George W Bush and Dick “Halliburton” Cheney made oil the central preoccupation of US foreign policy. “
As I have already shown, the price of our food is far more dependant on the price of a barrel of oil than the price of a bushel of corn. Obviously as oil prices increase, food prices will increase (with a few year lag since the supply curve does not instantly correct itself).
“Environmental analyst Lester Brown recently noted, “We’re looking at competition in the global market between 800 million automobiles and the world’s 2 billion poorest people for the same commodity, the same grains. We are now in a new economic era where oil and food are interchangeable commodities because we can convert grain, sugarcane, soybeans – anything – into fuel for cars. In effect the price of oil is beginning to set the price of food.”"
The reason that people are starving isn’t because there is not enough food to feed the people of the world, it is because the people of the world can not afford to feed themselves due to lack of jobs. Yesterday I wrote about an article which highlights how a Chinese company is buying up millions of acres of Congo palm oil plantation with the intention of creating massive amounts of biofuel. The Congo people are absolutely thrilled about this as it will create jobs for those who are currently some of the poorest in the world and the money will trickle down throughout the rest of the economy so the people can actually buy some food. I would argue that biofuels are actually going to end up reducing world hunger, not increase it. The areas of the world with the largest starvation also tend to be areas where biofuel crops grow best.
” The green claims for biofuel as a friendly and better fuel than gasoline are at best dubious, if not outright fraudulent. Depending on who runs the tests, ethanol has little if any effect on exhaust-pipe emissions in current car models. It has significant emission, however, of some toxins, including formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, a suspected neurotoxin that has been banned as carcinogenic in California.”
You use hyperbole to the extreme: “Compared with gasoline, ethanol tends to produce less benzene and butadiene, but more acetaldehyde and formaldehyde, when burned.” Basically ethanol produces slightly less of some negative compounds and slightly more of other negative compounds. This isn’t even “dubious” and certainly not “outright fraudulent.”
Anyway, you ignored most of the valid arguments against ethanol usage and argued mostly for the bad ones which have already been invalidated on numerous occasions. For example, I would argue that the implementation by the administration has been relatively poor. The subsidies are depleting an already overreaching budget. A carbon tax and possible other taxes on gasoline and large vehicles would be far more effective.
In conclusion I would suggest that perhaps Mr. Engdahl spend more time researching facts and less attempting (and failing) to prove his slogan: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.”
Engdahl, F William. “The great biofuel fraud” Asian Times Online, August 1 2007. <http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Global_Economy/IH01Dj02.html>