Wednesday, November 17, 2004

COLUMN -- Let's have both sides of ethanol debate

Posted by Craig Westover | 6:11 AM |  

November 11, 2004

An Opinion Page follower sent me an e-mail he received from Sen. Norm Coleman outlining the senator's position on drilling for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and energy policy in general.

In his e-mail, Coleman states his support for an amendment to the 2004 Budget Resolution that "prevented consideration of oil exploration in ANWR as part of the budget process." He describes drilling in ANWR as "a detour from the road we ought to be traveling if we want to maximize environmental protection, energy independence, and economic development dividends." Coleman supports "renewable energy, including ethanol, biodiesel, wind, and even livestock waste."

The senator's call for renewable energy, ethanol production in particular, in lieu of oil exploration is somewhat disingenuous. His e-mail ignores the scientific debate over whether it takes more energy to produce ethanol than is yielded by ethanol when it is used as fuel and whether ethanol is a "net consumer" or a "net saver" of petroleum.

Sen. Coleman, politician, plays the "seen" versus the "unseen" game. He shows us the observable (seen) benefits of ethanol production, but he ignores the unseen antecedents and consequences of those "benefits."

According to Coleman, legislation he supports would "displace more than 1.6 billion barrels of oil … reduce the nation's trade deficit by more than $34 billion, increase our gross domestic product by $156 billion, create more than 214,000 new jobs, expand household income by an additional $51.7 billion, and increase net farm income by $6 billion annually."

Those statistics can get one's nibblets shaking. Unfortunately, doing the math Coleman ignores the science that ought to, but might not, support his position.
The value of ethanol as a fuel lies in its "net energy value." NEV is derived by subtracting all of the energy consumed in the process of producing a fuel from the energy available after the fuel has been produced. Relative to ethanol, one must consider the amount of energy available in one gallon of ethanol and then subtract from it the energy required to plant, fertilize, harvest, transport, distill, ferment and process the corn required to produce that gallon of ethanol. One then adds back energy credit for marketable by-products of ethanol production (e.g. animal feed). If the resulting NEV is positive, then ethanol is a net energy producer; if the NEV is negative, then ethanol is a net energy consumer.

Determining the energy values for the inputs into ethanol production is necessary to the formulation of fact-based energy policy. The Cato Institute's Jerry Taylor is conducting such a study at present, and although the study is incomplete, he writes: "It is already clear to me that the NEV for ethanol is almost certainly negative and that it probably requires more oil to produce ethanol than is required to produce gasoline. Even if I am wrong about the latter, the amount of oil saved by ethanol is very small indeed."

If Taylor is correct, producing energy through ethanol requires that society consumes more energy resources than it produces and does not significantly reduce dependence on foreign oil. Coleman-supported legislation merely skims resources from various segments of the economy to subsidize ethanol production, albeit for the benefit of farmers in Minnesota and the Midwest. In the bigger picture, however, spending more resources to produce the same amount of energy is a net loss to all non-farm consumers and the U.S. economy in general.

In his e-mail, Coleman states that "renewable fuels offer a lot of promise — a promise I want to help become a reality." Therein lies the problem. A senator is a political animal hunting re-election, career advancement and a legacy. All are hard to obtain by saying "No" to the home-state folks — even when "No" is the right answer for the country.

Good science — good governance — demands more than a one-sided view of issues. The senator owes constituents both the seen and the unseen consequences of policy and only then the reasons why he supports one policy over another. In this constituent response, Sen. Coleman fails to deliver.