Ethanol? Or real emissions reform?

Russell Sadler

Now that Democrats control the Oregon Legislature and both houses of Congress there is likely to be some action toward reducing the emissions that are responsible for climate change. On the prudent assumption we cannot afford to do everything at once, lawmakers ought to set some priorities.

The highest priority ought to go to legislation that will have the biggest impact on energy consumption. That’s why it is disappointing to see so much rhetorical emphasis on biofuels -- particularly ethanol -- instead of conservation and increased efficiency which are likely to make the biggest immediate impact on consumption.

Corn-based ethanol appears to be carbon resource made by renewable sunlight instead of finite petroleum resources. That’s the theory. Real life is very different.

Growing corn in quantity depletes the nitrogen in the soil. More than 60 years ago, farmers replenished that nitrogen by growing a green cover crop and plowing it back into the soil on alternate years or they spread manure on the corn fields.

After World War II, chemical companies created a synthetic fertilizer that replaced cover crops and manure and allowed fence-row to fence-row industrial corn production. That fertilizer -- ammonium nitrate -- is manufactured using prodigious amounts of electricity and natural gas. If you subtract the amount of finite fossil fuels used to produce the corn used to manufacture “renewable” ethanol, there is very little net energy gain. By the most optimistic estimate the Bush ethanol subsidies will only replace about one percent of our current petroleum consumption. in the near future.

So why all this emphasis on biofuels? There is little political opposition. Biofuels are a very visible change from the past and will be used by everyone so they will raise public awareness of climate change issues. But when you add up the subsidies planned by the Bush regime and Oregon legislature’s planned property tax incentives for biofuel production and income tax incentives for consumers, biofuels become a very expensive political gesture with very little effect on consumption.

More seriously the biofuel debate may produce a false sense of accomplishment and divert attention from the hard decisions of reducing energy consumption by conservation and increased efficiency. Both require a measure of government regulation as the Pacific Northwest learned after the the Arab Oil Embargo of the early 1970s.

Following the oil shortage and the drought that restricted hydroelectric production, the region’s utilities and governments decided it was more cost-efficient to conserve the electricity being produced than to build more power plants.

The region’s utilities began financing “weatherization” programs installing double-paned windows and more insulation in existing homes while governments imposed stricter building codes with higher insulation standards and more efficient appliances.

Pollution control regulations required redesigned industrial processes that were more efficient than older, more polluting processes. These utility decisions and government regulations reduced individual and per production unit energy consumption more than the “price signals” beloved of free market think tank theorists.

In fact, per unit energy consumption has decreased in virtually every sector of the economy since the Arab Oil Embargo, except one -- transportation. The American automobile manufacturers bet on the wrong horse. They left the small efficient cars to the Japanese and Koreans and they bet their future on trucks and SUVs. They would not admit their folly until gasoline passed $3.00 a gallon and their market collapsed. The mistaken strategy probably finished Ford.

Vehicle emissions make up a large share of the greenhouse gases creating climate change. Reducing them quickly will be the hardest task because the choices are politically unpalatable. And biofuels will only play a symbolic role.

To begin to have any serious effect on climate change, the people who think seriously about these things say American transportation fuel efficiency must double over the next two or three decades.

That cannot happen without a combination of government regulations and market “price signals”-- meaning a large tax on fuel to discourage driving inefficient vehicles and unnecessary trips. It means individuals will have to make serious choices about paying more for hybrids, small cars and trucks, electric vehicles, short drives or using public transportation -- all the things that American automobile advertising and Dick Cheney have deliberately stigmatized.

And that’s why so many politicians are yapping about ethanol. It’s a diversion. Are the rest of us going to let them get away with it or tell them to get down to the real work?

  • Flaxseed Farmer (unverified)

    Commissioner Leonard isn't going to be pissed! Didn't you read his Press Release: Clean Energy Economic Development...p\Portland is going to use virgin Eastern Oregon canola oil to fulfill the Biofuel's ordinance, not that nasty midwestern corn.

    And canola oil can be used to make anything from french fries, to salad dressing, to gasoline. We'll probably quit importing oil from Iran if every city in the country passes a similar law.

  • BlueNote (unverified)

    Congress loves to promote ethanol because Congress knows that subsidizing ethanol from corn is just another crop subsidy for corn farmers. Congress loves those mid-west family farmers. Actually, Congress loves agribusiness giants like ADM which sends millions back to Congress in the form of campaign contributions every year. And ADM gives to both parties, not just the greedy Repubs.

    Rather than wasting time trying to promote French fry oil or digested Kudzu as automobile fuel, the whole country needs an actual comprehensive energy policy. But adopting a comprehensive energy policy is not a popular idea in DC (and in much of the progressive environmental community) since it involves making difficult and sometimes unpopular choices (like new nuclear plant licenses) and making long term commitments rather than looking for the "fix of the day". Tough choices and long term thinking are not exactly the characteristics that Congress has been known for over the past 25 years.

    So I predict Congress will have another 25 years of dithering and doing nothing on a long term energy policy. Gasoline and diesel will eventually become so expensive that the poor and middle class will be forced to use mass transit, so there will be more and more transit systems built. But the upper middle class and the wealthy folks will continue to drive their cars and not give a damn about the problem, and since the upper middle class and the wealthy folks control Congress, I guess that we will all live happily ever after.

  • Randy Leonard (unverified)

    Actually, Mr. Flax, canola is used to produce biodiesel (for diesel powered vehicles), not ethanol (for gasoline powered engines).

    Biodiesel produces approximately 3 times the energy needed to produce it and diesel powered engines achieve approximately 25% better miles per gallon compared to gasoline engine.

  • BOHICA (unverified)

    Hemp for victory!

  • GT (unverified)

    How dumb, now they are going to be using what little farmland they haven't developed and use it not for growing food but for fuel for buses? Maybe people shouldn't be so lazy and walk for their needs instead of sitting 5-6 people per bus, spewing pollution into the air.

  • Thomas Ware (unverified)


    Now for the un-freaking-believable: the local rightwing rag, The Bend Bullshiten, out here Homeless on the High Desert today published a relatively informative op-ed along the same lines. Must have run out of Kool-Aid.

    HEMP for Oregon!

  • BFO is a BFD in a PCC (unverified)

    Commissioner Leonard:

    If you are willing to accept the premise that Ethanol is Corn Belt Welfare, and Biodiesel is Manna from Heaven, why include Ethanol in your BioFuels Ordinance (BFO)?

    PCC=Politically Correct City

  • Amanda Fritz (unverified)

    Oregon State Univesity published this media release on 1/29/07, with a link to recent research. It supports Russell's point that moving to biofuels is supplemental, not a substitute for conservation.

    "For comparison, the authors calculated that the net energy benefits from increasing automobile fuel efficiency by one mile per gallon would be equivalent to three or four corn ethanol plants or 13 biodiesel plants like those evaluated in their report."

  • Jeremiah Baumann (unverified)

    There are a lot of well-documented problems with ethanol, especially corn-based ethanol from the Midwest. But there are also a lot of benefits from local non-corn biofuels and as others have pointed out, the Biofuels package that's moving in Salem includes policies to move us toward local production (canola for biodiesel) and cellulosic ethanol.

    But your overall point is the big one: increasing efficiency for vehicles is the 800-pound gorilla. Unfortunately, Oregon's not allowed to require Detroit to increase gas mileage. Oregon has already gone as far as we can indirectly -- the Oregon Clean Cars program requires automakers to cut global warming pollution and the expectation is that the lion's share of those cuts will be accomplished by increasing gas mileage.

    With that program in place, the Biofuels package is an important next step on global warming and on energy independence. In addition, we should be increasing energy efficiency measures on the electricity side of things. After all, electricity generates more global warming pollution than transportation in Oregon.

    The Oregon Public Utility Commission introduced a bill to let them start raising the Public Purposes Charge -- that's the 3% fee on our utility bills that funds the Energy Trust of Oregon. This effective organization just set a new record for the amount of energy conservation achieved in Oregon. But there are still a lot more cost-effective energy conservation measures that they can't get to because they need more funds.

    The biggest global warming reduction this Legislature can get (at least among bills introduced so far...) is the Renewable Energy Standard requiring that utilities get to 25% renewable by 2025. Oregon's behind the pack in not already having one of these laws on the books, but if the Legislature adopts 25% x '25 and doesn't load it up with loopholes, we could quickly move to the front of the pack.

    The Governor has made this a top priority and Senator Avakian, chair of the Environment and Natural Resources committee, is doing the same. A rapidly growing coalition, including OSPIRG, the Renewable Northwest Project, Citizens' Utility Board, 3E Strategies, Oregon Business Association, farms from Eastern Oregon, county commissioners from rural counties, the Bus Project, Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, and others, is working hard to make this a reality. Stay tuned. Better yet, call your legislator and tell them it should be their top priority too!

  • Urban Planning Overlord (unverified)

    Actually, the legislature could take a giant step toward combatting greenhouse gases with another policy proposal - one that, for some strange reason, isn't in Mr. Sadler's toolbox of tricks.

    A couple of new nuclear power plants in Oregon. The legislature should make them a priority, as much as it has the power to in the teeth of federal environmental laws. I would suggest one in one of our many coastal bays, and another along either the Columbia or Willamette Rivers.

  • oregonj (unverified)


    • that is exactly what the Legislature will be looking at this session. Jeremiah rightly points out that the 25% renewables by 2025 is front and center. Here is a list of some of the bills that will come before the Legislature in 2007:

    20 x 25 Renewable Energy Standard Biofuels Incentives and Support Expansion of Business and Residential Energy Tax Credits Expansion of the Energy Trust of Oregon funding

    And the Governor has mentioned additional ideas for legislation, including possibly a carbon cap and trade, to tackle Carbon Dioxide reductions directly.

    Stay Tuned Call your Legislator Follow these bills on the Legislative Path

    If these bills become law, Oregon will move from being a middling state on tackling CO2 emissions, to being a real leader on this issue.

  • (Show?)

    I think any cap and trade program should immediately seek to be a full West Coast program, allowing trades and comparison from Tijuana to Vancouver. The votes are favorable right now in all three statehouses and governors mansions; we shouldn't waste the opportunity.

  • switchhitter (unverified)

    Torrid, it makes no economic sense to trade a negative externality. Don't be blinded by the notion that a right to pollute (like a right to dump on a neighbor's front porch) is itself beneficial activity. It remains tangential to something else that is considered beneficial.

    The present and anticipated future profits of business activity are intimately tied to the tax code and things like depreciation. We use the tax code to induce development of industrial capacity. We can simply remove one such inducement, rather than treat the present code as somehow static like some sort of property right -- as to future expansion.

    Sure, CATO folks might like to push something to suit their client base by isolating on the "tradeable" feature of the cap and trade credits, as if that was all that one needs to know. They have however fallen prey to the corporate-only sort of liberty advocacy, knowingly and skillfully at the expense of individual liberty. The pro-development folks will bite the mantra. Yet see this:

    Exhaust Your Depreciation, not CO2

    "We could simply let an industrial plant exhaust their depreciation on existing plants to zero, and declare that new plant investment that pollutes beyond some prescribed level (not-green-enough) be denied the benefit of liberal depreciation terms that are designed to invite expansion or replacement of capacity. The money that would have gone toward not-green-enough investments would flow instead to green stuff."

    If the tax code inducement were stripped what might be the value of any tradeable credits in twenty or thirty years time? They would tend toward zero. The incentives would be skewed toward the policy objective but without having to guarantee any green enterprise a profit. The credits have value only if we perpetuate the present pro-industrialization tax code inducement, like some unwanted holdover tenant.

    I tend to believe that a capitalist, public or private, has no right to be treated with any greater largess than a client of DHS. Check out the DHS criteria for measuring client assets as a precondition for delivery of any aid. Then match that against anyone begging for a gift because they claim to hold the right political view in the religion of environmentalism.

    In any event, buying the assumption of the need for growth for the sake of growth is what leads to the reliance on incentives derived from tax extractions from others to deliver to another rather than just directly addressing the harm that policy makers believe exists. See the first paragraph from and then come back and tell me why it is that you think "sustainability" has been contorted into an excuse for graft? (Hint: It has to do with political science rather than hard sciences.)

    It just so happens that I got my undergrad degree from the very place that Amanda links. I am just a hick, without cowboy boots or chew. I was thinking of the matters noted above twenty years ago, in the context of population growth projections etc etc.

    Amanda, the tax code and pro-development crowd brought us zero percent financing in December 2001 for SUVs. That scheme would offer a rather large plate of things for review and critique and that have nothing whatsoever to do with corporate average fuel economy but yet can still achieve policy objectives, and without any tax "incentives" for the few at the expense of the masses.

    A numbers and logic nerd would love a course taught by this guy.

    Russell says "These utility decisions and government regulations reduced individual and per production unit energy consumption more than the 'price signals' beloved of free market think tank theorists."

    I am not prepared to consider the professor noted above as subject to your generalized critique of the professional discipline of economics. Using the tax code thing I note above would be an unmistakable "price signal" as you call it -- but that would run into a brick wall from the folks with real political power. Ah, cap and trade sounds oh so nice, to anyone without professional training.

    "So why all this emphasis on biofuels? " Because the environmentalism focus of the masses is a resource that can be translated into cash in the pockets of some smart folks. As a distraction.

  • Biofuelsimon (unverified)

    Conserve, use less energy that's the way ahead. No one has the right to drive large vehicles long distances without paying the true economic and environmental price. Not sure that I'd get elected anywhere with a message like that. I' don't rate Bush's plans for ethanol either

  • Karl Smiley (unverified)

    Conservation can help in the short term. Unfortunately there is no way we can stop global warming from escalating unless we stop taking stored carbon out of the ground, period. In the future we must get our carbon energy from the surface system...Biofuels. I believe that the most promising source is algae. It can produce huge amounts of oil in a small area and does not need to be on land more suitable for growing food. It can be done with almost exclusively solar energy. I believe that this is where we should be putting our research $ and time.

  • (Show?)

    Anyone here read Michael Pollan's book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma"? I haven't read it but I've listened to two long interviews of him on the book and he makes the exact same case that Russell does about corn/energy. Absolutely two of the most fascinating interviews I've ever heard in my life.

  • Tim Raphael (unverified)

    I urge folks to review the latest data on ethanol--even corn-based--before dismissing its environmental benefits. Check out, "Ethanol Can Contribute to Energy and Environmental Goals," Science, Jan. 27, 2006, Vol. 311 pp506-8.

    While cellulose-based ethanol holds tremendous potential, corn-based ethanol is commercially viable today. There is no dispute that corn-based ethanol has a positive net energy balance, reduces greenhouse gas emissions and reduces air toxics like benzene.

    For another interesting perspective, check out Vinod Khosla's Google tech talk:

    Get video here:

    Vinod Khosla is a venture capitalist considered one of the most successful and influential personalities in Silicon Valley. He was one of the co-founders of Sun Microsystems and became a general partner of the venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers in 1986. In 2004 he formed Khosla Ventures.

    On Wednesday, March 29th, Vinod Khosla visited Google to deliver a tech talk about the emergence of ethanol as a viable, market ready, and competitive source of renewable energy. His presentation has been making huge waves in the investor, policy, and business communities.

    Thanks Tim

  • TR (unverified)

    Cornell ecologist's study finds that producing ethanol and biodiesel from corn and other crops is not worth the energy July 5, 2005

    ITHACA, N.Y. -- Turning plants such as corn, soybeans and sunflowers into fuel uses much more energy than the resulting ethanol or biodiesel generates, according to a new Cornell University and University of California-Berkeley study.

    "There is just no energy benefit to using plant biomass for liquid fuel," says David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell. "These strategies are not sustainable."

    Pimentel and Tad W. Patzek, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Berkeley, conducted a detailed analysis of the energy input-yield ratios of producing ethanol from corn, switch grass and wood biomass as well as for producing biodiesel from soybean and sunflower plants. Their report is published in Natural Resources Research (Vol. 14:1, 65-76).

    In terms of energy output compared with energy input for ethanol production, the study found that:

    • corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced;

    • switch grass requires 45 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced; and

    • wood biomass requires 57 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.

    In terms of energy output compared with the energy input for biodiesel production, the study found that:

    • soybean plants requires 27 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced, and

    • sunflower plants requires 118 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.

    In assessing inputs, the researchers considered such factors as the energy used in producing the crop (including production of pesticides and fertilizer, running farm machinery and irrigating, grinding and transporting the crop) and in fermenting/distilling the ethanol from the water mix. Although additional costs are incurred, such as federal and state subsidies that are passed on to consumers and the costs associated with environmental pollution or degradation, these figures were not included in the analysis.

    "The United State desperately needs a liquid fuel replacement for oil in the near future," says Pimentel, "but producing ethanol or biodiesel from plant biomass is going down the wrong road, because you use more energy to produce these fuels than you get out from the combustion of these products."

    ALSO from: Hydrocarbons and the Evolution of Human Culture Nature 426, pp. 318–22, Charles Hall, T. Pradeep, J. Hallock, Cutler Cleveland, M. Jefferson. November 20, 2003:

    “Liquid, renewable fuels, such as ethanol and hydrogen, do not have a high enough Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROI) to run civilization, let alone maintain the existing infrastructure, the majority of which was built when oil had an EROI of 40 to 100”.

    Other Information:

    Because ethanol is corrosive and degrades when transported through a pipeline, ethanol must be transported by truck or tanker trains. This creates an increased safety hazard for both people and the environment by considerably adding to the amount of highly flammable and hazardous materials being transported on roadways and by rail, through not only the neighborhoods in cities and towns. An October 20, 2006 train derailment on a 2,500 foot trestle near New Brighton, PA where nine tank cars full of corn based fuel crashed and caught fire should send a message of the dangers of transporting ethanol. It only takes one broken or bad rail, or an overturned truck to create a disaster.

    Using ethanol or an ethanol-gasoline mix instead of gasoline in most motor vehicles increases the fuel consumption and reduces fuel efficiency by up to 15 percent for the miles traveled. Therefore using ethanol is opposite of fuel efficiency.

    Using corn and other food stocks to produce liquid energy like ethanol will also likely increase the cost of food, feed for animals like hogs and possibly create a foreseeable future food shortage as the population of the world grows. There is simply not enough good farm land to support both food production and energy production

    Ethanol production is not financially self-sustainable and therefore can not be produced without constant and enormous government and taxpayer subsidies

    There are also questions about what role General Motors is playing in the production and endorsement of ethanol with their promotion of E-85 vehicles.


    Mandating ethanol is a political SCAM marketed as energy independence, a SCAM that wastes taxpayer dollars to subsidize production, and a SCAM that takes more energy to produce the product than it provides energy in return.

  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)

    Not to change the subject, but rather to expand on it, producing energy from crops has more costs than the fuel used to produce it. As someone from the dry side of the State who became interested in this issue during the (failed) attempt by Cogentrix to put a power plant in Central Oregon - water is king!

    Having visited Wisconsin a few years back during a drought, I noted that they do not irrigate. But over here in Central Oregon nearly every crop receives irrigation or dies. Many parts of the country need irrigation to supplement the water that falls from the sky. And people need water too.

    If we tie up our crops to energy production, and we continue to need more energy, it will only hasten the coming crisis in the water arena. We are already short of water in many parts of the U.S., and close to it in others. In the Deschutes / Crooked River basins in Central Oregon, we have about 40,000 acre feet of water not allocated at the Crooked River Reservoir behind Bowman Dam, and the rest is fully allocated. If a city wants a new well, they have to buy up the irrigation rights from a farmer and make an irrigated field permanently dry.

    And to the Canola Oil for Portland crowd - there are aquafers in eastern Oregon that are already being degraded by irrigation. We are seeing falling aquafer levels, in some cases by hundreds of feet, and some land subsidence (not much yet, but the Southwest's experience in this regard tells us it is a coming attraction).

    So, besides the fuel cost to create bio-fuels, the water cost should be examined. Water is not free.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    Steve Bucknum is correct that water is an important issue. So is soil erosion increased by tilling and nitrate fertilizer induced humus depletion. We have been using both resources unsustainably for some time in order to grow food. That has been one of the arguments for decreasing meat consumption, since calorie and protein input is so much greater than the calorie and protein derived from meat production. Fuel production works the same way, but it is an even more voracious consumer of resources.

    The only way to grow material for bio-fuels sustainably is to do it without irrigation and without chemical fertilizer, and, most likely, to do it locally. that reduces the possibilities substantially. It does make sense to put enough effort into bio-fuels to develop the technologies, however, as there are likely to be some opportunities to produce sustainably. Bio-fuels will never be a magic bullet, though, that will allow us to maintain transportation in the manner to which we have become accustomed.

    It's sad that the discussion about how things need to change is not able to reach a wide public. The vested interests: oil companies, vehicle manufacturers, road builders, shippers, wholesalers and retailers dependent on shipped wares, etc., don't want to here about it. The American people don't want to talk about giving up the easy life. Elected officials see little upside to upsetting all of these parties, and bureaucrats don't want to upset wealthy interests or elected officials.

    So, it's every man head first into his own patch of sand.

  • lin qiao (unverified)

    Worth thinking about carbon dioxide sequestration. There's a lot of thinking going on about this currently.

  • Paul Scott (unverified)

    The most efficient vehicle made is the battery EV. Using renewable electricity in an EV allows for zero emissions, well to wheel. Contrary to what the carmakers are saying, the batteries are more than ready today. GM claims they need another 3-5 years before using the latest Lithium Ion (LiIon) batteries in their plug-in hybrid (PHEV) Chevy Volt. However, GM's vehicle chief engineer, Nick Zelenski, says that individual batteries are already good enough. 'We've got enough data at the cell level to feel that the technology is there,' he says.

    Considering the recent Energy Department study that determined 80% of the vehicles in the U.S. (180 million vehicles) could be charged with night time off-peak power without adding to the production capacity, it makes sense to use this domestic resource before investing in an entirely new infrastructure.,

    Additionally, EEStor of Austin recently reported a successful production run of their highly anticipated ceramic ultracapacitor that has the potential to render batteries and internal combustion obsolete. This device hold 15 kWh of energy, can be fast charged in minutes, can be cycled millions of times without wearing out, weighs only 100 lbs, is stackable and costs only a few thousand dollars.

    By comparison, my Toyota RAV4 EV has a Nickel Metal Hydride battery pack weighing 1000 lbs and holds 27 kWh of energy and costs north of $20K. It will last the lifetime of my car, about 150K-200k miles, but eventually will need to be recycled.

    EVs have been viable for some time, and the demand from the public is strong. We need to internalize the costs of all transportation options so that the efficient choices are allowed a level playing field. EVs and PHEVs are by far the best choices since they use cleaner, cheaper, domestic energy that can and should be generated renewably.

    A survey of EV owners in California showed that a full 48% of them already use solar PV as their energy source, and much of the rest get their power from existing green energy programs from their utilities.

    A simple 2 kW PV system will generate enough power to charge the average American's driving needs for the whole year. And the systems sold today will last 40-50 years.

    Bio-fuels used in conjunction with PHEVs can be sustainable since so little of the liquid fuel will be needed. For most drivers, there will be little need to go to the gas/diesel engine since 40-50 miles are in the battery at the start of each day.

    This is the future of driving sustainably.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)


    Electric cars make sense, but they are not an answer to transportation as usual. Whether generation capacity is existent or not, fuel for those generators is not sustainable. Oil may have peaked already, natural gas in North America has already peaked, coal is an environmental nightmare [absent some non-existent conversion capacity], nuclear still produces effectively eternally deadly waste. We can start putting up wind and tidal generators and building solar collectors, but we are not going to be able to keep moving over asphalt and concrete ribbons as we now do.

    <h2>My suggestion: Look for work close to home, support your local businesses, and walk to your next vacation.</h2>

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