Wednesday, November 17, 2004

READER RESPONSE -- More fuel for ethanol debate

Posted by Craig Westover | 11:59 AM |  

Reader Dallas Eggers sends a link to an interesting article from the August 2004 Audubon Magazine. The title “Drunk on Ethanol” and the subhead pretty much tell you what to expect.

"Our addiction to corn-derived alcohol is not only costing us a lot of money, it's also wiping out fish and wildlife habitat, and polluting our air, soil, and water."
The author makes a good case for that premise, but remember, the Audubon Society has it’s own axe to grind. Nonetheless, and this is the main point of my column today in the Pioneer Press, when politicians like Sen. Coleman ignore the arguments in opposition to their positions, they allow their detractor’s to frame the argument. That may fool some of the people some of the time, but it doesn’t fool all of the people. Some, like Dallas, think for themselves.

But there are, as the article’s author discovered, some “honest” politicians.

“Some Corn Belt politicians are refreshingly candid about why the wasteful, obsolete oxygenate [ethanol] requirement needs to stay in place. "I once asked Governor Tom Vilsack of Iowa at a news conference why Californians and northeasterners should be forced to put ethanol in their gasoline when the science clearly shows it has no environmental benefits," recalls Paul Rogers of the San Jose Mercury News. "Because it helps farmers from my state expand their markets, he explained. 'So I guess you'd support a new federal law to require everybody in Des Moines to buy a computer, to help people in Silicon Valley expand their markets?' I asked. He didn't concur."
In other words, ethanol production is not about reducing dependence on foreign oil or creating jobs or any other general economic benefit. It’s about redistributing wealth from one part of the country to another.

That is more or less, Sen. Coleman’s position. In a portion of his e-mail that I didn’t quote in my column, following his battalion of statistics purporting the benefits of ethanol production, the senator declares --
“With fourteen ethanol plants already having more than a half billion dollars in positive economic impact on Minnesota, imagine the impact on our State alone under this legislation.”
The irony is, that impact is probably negative. The Audubon article supports Jerry Taylor’s preliminary findings on the “Net Energy Value” of ethanol.
“David Pimentel is a Cornell University agricultural scientist (and former Audubon board member) who has exhaustively studied the economics, efficiency, and alleged environmental benefits of ethanol . . . In his latest project, Pimentel calculated the real energy costs of raising corn, including the enormous amounts of fossil fuel required to power irrigation pumps, run planting and harvesting machinery, cook the corn in the fermentation/distillation process, and make the fossil fuel-based nitrogen fertilizer that agribusiness is hooked on. Without even factoring in the fuel that's required to ship ethanol to blending sites, Pimentel found that it takes about 29 percent more energy to produce ethanol than you get from burning it. . . .Then, figuring in state and federal subsidies, Pimentel found that ethanol costs $2.24 a gallon to produce, compared with 63 cents for gasoline.”
[UPDATE: Reader Ernie Melby sends along additional information on the Pimentel study Here's a direct link to the information.]

The final irony is that ethanol production might do more harm to the environment that it ostensibly prevents. Here, I admit, the article wanders a bit into the nether world between sound, scientific fact and genuflecting to our Mother the Earth philosophy, but when one’s argument for ethanol production is based on protecting the environment and the environmentalists oppose it, that in and of itself ought to send the senator back to the drawing board.
“Wetlands—the most productive fish and wildlife habitat there is—consume nitrogen and filter out pesticides and sediments, but wetlands are being drained in order to produce surplus corn. The Corn Belt has lost about 70 percent of its wetlands. In some areas, such as Nebraska, corn has to be irrigated by pumps that suck water from the ground faster than it percolates back in. Moreover, the pumps are powered by natural gas, the frenzied production of which is creating horrendous problems for fish, wildlife, and livestock.”
Bottom line -- there’s more than enough evidence that ethanol production is not the slam dunk that Sen. Coleman’s e-mail would have his constituents believe. Thanks to readers who brought the e-mail to my attention and to the many following up with additional information. I hope you follow up with the senator as well.

UPDATE: Ken Prouty of St. Louis notes that "Early on, ethanol was considered a net energy consumer. However, because of more efficient methods of production, this has changed." He then cites a U.S. Department of Agriculture study that concludes ethanol contains 34% more energy than is used to grow and harvest the corn and distill it into ethanol. He provides a site where this information is found. This site also has a refutation of the David Pimentel study cited by Audubon.

Why the discrepancy? It boils down to the inputs and credits one assigns to the production of ethanol. Unfortunately, most people will tend to believe the study that supports their point of view rather than the study with the most scientific rigor. To be perfectly honest, most of us lack the knowledge to make such a scientific judgment -- and that’s why pronouncements like Sen. Coleman’s are so dangerous.

Without the pricing mechanisms of the free market, with the intrusion of government subsidies, studies of the efficiency of ethanol are just debate fodder. If ethanol is a net provider of energy (that is, it has value over and above the value of its inputs) then the industry should be able to survive and thrive on market prices without subsidies. Government subsidies disguise inefficiencies in the production process and consequently, Americans pay more for energy than they should through taxes and higher prices for other goods if not directly out of their own pockets.