Monday, July 04, 2005

Clearing the air on ethanol: an exchange

Responding to this post, an unnamed person from the American Lung Association of Minnesota wrote in with the following spirited defense of ethanol.

Bitter, green, and uninformed, I'm afraid.

Patzek [Editor's note: Berkeley oil geologist and ethanol critic Tad W. Patzek] is a Big Oil Apologist (crisis, what crisis? Drill ANWR!) living in an Ivory Tower fantasyland. Look at his C.V. -- he actually brags about his "friend of the oil industry" award. Look it up -- I did.

Let Roger [I think the author means Tad. --Ed.] know he can move to Minnesota, the E85 Capitol of North America, anytime. With 20 models of FFVs (flexible fuel vehicles) on sale now and more than 150 E85 pumps statewide (new stations opening every week), Minnesota is the place to be to use E85.

Who says so? The American Lung Association of Minnesota. Read more at www.CleanAirChoice.org

Ethanol isn't a miracle fuel. But it is cleaner burning than gasoline, and a good short-term step until practical, clean vehicles and/or fuel can be develped fully.


Bitter Greens Journal responds:

Not a miracle fuel, eh?

Adding ethanol to our fuel supply causes air pollution...You have more vapor emissions when you're refueling and when your car is sitting in a parking lot on a hot summer day. And ethanol can degrade systems in cars, so you'll get more leaks.


That quotation comes not from an academic with ties to the oil industry, but from one Peter Iwanowicz--director of the American Lung Association of New York State. You'll find it in this rather devastating piece from the 8/2004 Audobon magazine.

Note that Iwanowicz's critique of ethanol is independent of the fuel's energy balance, or the energy a fuel delivers divided by the energy required to create it. Thus, even given the most generous calculations of ethanol's energy balance (highly disputed territory; more below), there's no consensus that ethanol actually improves air quality--even within the American Lung Association itself.

Indeed, the production of ethanol in my critic's home state of Minnesota has not been entirely smooth viz. air pollution. Here's that Audobon article again:

[I]n October 2002 the EPA settled with 12 ethanol plants in Minnesota, hitting them with civil penalties ranging from $29,000 to $39,000 each, and requiring that each spend about $2 million cutting back on emissions of nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, particulates, and other hazardous pollutants.


None of this has stopped the American Lung Association of Minnesota from vigorously promoting ethanol as, well, a miracle fuel. Not only does the group evidently scan the Internet to root out obscure blogs that dare quetion the wonderous benefits of ethanol, but it also runs an entire Web site, mentioned above by the letter writer, designed solely to flog the many benefits of the controversial fuel. The group does so in terms even more enthusiastic than you'll find even on the Web site of Archer Daniels Midland, the corporate ethanol king and the greatest champion and beneficiary of the fuel's many public subsidies.

In its almost evangelical zeal for ethanol, the ALA of Minnesota has plunged itself into an alliance with some of the nation's major industrial agriculture interests. Here it is in bed with Monsanto, promoting a special strain of the GMO's seed giant's corn. Appropriately enough, the initiative is called "Fuel Your Profits."

The ALA of Minnesota has also allied itself with its state's Corn Grower's Association. Minnesota is the nation's fifth most prodigious producer of corn, and its corn farmers draw about $400 million per year in federal commodity subsidies.

Now to address the specific charge leveled against BGJ by the unnamed ALA of Minnesota functionary, namely that the blog is "uniformed" because it failed to note Tad Patzek's ties to the oil industry. Patzek's CV does not include a "friend of the oil industry" award, but it does demonstrate a cozy relationship with Shell and other petrol giants.

Does that fact automatically discredit his charge that ethanol production consumes more energy than it renders? No, but it surely casts doubt. (I can't resist pointing out that the ALA's almost wild-eyed support of ethanol as a clean-air panaecea, in the face of contrary evidence, is rendered suspect by its cozy relations with the companies who benefit most from ethanol subsidies.)

At any rate, Bitter Greens Journal has always acknowledged that studies measuring the energy balance of ethanol contradict each other. The USDA, which partially underwrites ethanol production with its generous corn subsidies, claims in a report much-hyped on the ALA of Minnesota's Web site that ethanol generates 1.67 units of energy for every unit consumed.

Patzek is one of two major academics who dispute the USDA's rosy finding. The other is Cornell's David Pimentel, who charges that the USDA's methodology assumes that every farm producing corn for ethanol uses "best practices" to maximize yield, and operates under the very best soil and water conditions. "If I[ made the same assumptions as the USDA], I think I could get my figures to be positive, too," Pimentel told Audobon magazine.

Under real-world conditions, the scientist reckons that corn-based ethanol production requires about 29 percent more energy than it renders at the pump.

Now, my critic at the ALA of Minnesota will point out that Pimentel has worked professionally with oil-tainted Tad Patzek. BGJ does not have the scientific background to judge whether the rosy or the dire assessment of ethanol's energy balance holds more true. But the USDA's generous sponsorship of industrial corn production renders its pronouncement's on ethanol at least as suspect as those of Patzek and Pimentel.

Indeed, that great friend of oil GW Bush recently installed industrial corn man Chuck Conner as deputy secretary of the USDA. Before taking that post, Conner served for several as Bush's special assistant on agriculture. Before that, Conner was president of the Corn Refiners Association--a front group for Archer Daniels Midland. Read all about it here.

One thing I learned from reading through USDA material is that coal is a major source of energy for ethanol-production plants. Why would the Lung Association of Minnesota throw its lot so emphatically with a technology that relies on such a lung-ruining energy source? Surely, that question bears more investigation from BGJ.

Meanwhile, let me urge the group to try a different path: urge Minnesotans to reject Big Oil and Big Ag alike, and boost their cardiovascular health, by riding their bikes to work--and by buying as much of their food as possible from small, local farms.

10 Comments:

Anonymous beev said...

Do you know about Haubenschild Farms in Minnesota? They are apparently generating substantial amounts of power using the manure from their cow herd. More details:

http://www.mnproject.org/programs/energy_sub/farmbasedenergy.html

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