Uncovering The Gas Roots of Contemporary Ethanol Opposition
By Marc J. Rauch
Exec. Vice President/Co-Publisher
THE AUTO CHANNEL
Opposition to alternative fuels almost always stems from the petroleum oil industry; the controlling caste of the global energy world. The reason, needless to say, is financial. No person or entity in a position of power and wealth ever wants to willingly surrender that rank - except George Washington. But to have to go back more than two hundred years to find an exception to the rule proves the rule, as the saying goes.
Ethanol, as the leading contender to the throne - a position it's held since its use in the earliest internal combustion engines - naturally gets the most enmity from the oil lobbyists and its public relations machine.
As with all historical analyses, the history of opposition to ethanol can be broken down in chronological categories. This is how I break it down:
Ancient Era: The era begins with the levying of federal taxes on ethanol (alcohol) production to help fund the Civil War. This led to the rise of petroleum oil kerosene as the primary liquid fuel for lighting, heating and cooking - and the beginning of petroleum oil wealth. With the rise in petroleum oil wealth came the predictable birth of paid political tutelage to expand and protect the burgeoning oil industry (and its nouveau riche snake-oil salesmen).
Classic Era: This begins with the public interest in those great new inventions, the automobile and airplane. The petroleum oil industry moves from kerosene as its cash cow to something called gasoline (as well as petroleum diesel fuel). Kerosene was big business, but gasoline is the mother lode. Although the oil industry was delivered a significant setback when the Free Alcohol Act was passed in 1906, which removed the onerous federal taxes on ethanol production and allowed ethanol to compete in price with gasoline, the oil industry's new hero rode in on a dull black horse called Prohibition. This act not only killed ethanol as a fuel competitor, it ushered in the age of organized crime. Prohibition was aided by a sidekick, tetraethyl lead, which made the world's largest oil producer, chemical company, and automaker far bigger and richer than ever before (Standard Oil, DuPont, and General Motors, respectively).
Medieval Era: This era begins with the repeal of Prohibition and takes us through the Second World War, which includes Standard Oil's collusion with the Nazis to keep German alternative fuel technology hidden from the outside world, as well as to secure Standard Oil's world dominance in the event of a German victory. The era ends with the 1970's oil embargo fright and the dawning of a new rise in alternative fuel consciousness.
Modern Era: In addition to the 1970's oil embargo fright, the era begins with the world acknowledging that tobacco products and tetraethyl lead are indeed deadly. The U.S. government places restrictions on tobacco, and issues a near-ban on tetraethyl lead in gasoline. Ethanol and methanol are promoted as suitable octane replacements for TEL, but the oil industry is permitted to use its own concoction (another poison), MTBE. Thankfully, MTBE's use is short and ethanol raises its sweet smell once again - ethanol's bouquet is liked by everyone, except the petroleum oil industry that prefers the nauseating stench of death.
I've written about the early eras on several occasions, in which I was aided tremendously by the fantastic work done by William Kovarik (and his associates), David Blume (and his associates), Edwin Black (and his associates), Ted Chipner, Ron Lamberty, Tom Quinn, Bobby Likis, Adam Khan and Klassy Evans, Anne Korin, Josh and Rebecca Tickell, Jamie Kitman, Robert Falco, Michael Carolan, and many others.
In this paper I want to focus on the contemporary portion of the Modern Era of ethanol opposition, that is since the mid-1990's and especially since 2005 with the adoption of the Renewable Fuel Standard.
THE NEW MILLENIUM
Faced with some actual governmental actions that were detrimental to gasoline/diesel dominance, instead of the virtual carte blanche pro-petroleum fuel policies that they usually receive from the government, the petroleum oil industry is facing serious challenges to its primacy. For the time being, at least, methanol has receded in importance as the solution to gasoline and petroleum diesel, and ethanol has taken center stage. Ethanol's importance is being aided by the potential of ubiquitous availability and next-generation vehicle engine development, which will require increasingly higher proportions of ethanol in every ethanol-gasoline blended fuel in order to meet performance and emissions requirements.
The petroleum oil industry has responded by opening its coffers to pay for any and all attacks on ethanol and other alternative fuels. Ironically, the oil industry even originally included its own by-products, compressed natural gas and propane gas, as targets of these attacks, although they have since backed off on CNG and they now ignore propane as an engine fuel. The only "alt fuel" to be spared has been electric, and that's because the oil industry knows that electric-powered passenger vehicles will not be a serious contender for years to come, if ever. So in the meantime, Big Oil uses electric as a diversion to pretend they have an altruistic conscience.
PROFESSIONAL and AMATEUR ETHANOL HATERS
The bounties offered by the oil industry's open coffers are substantial, so substantial that they attract highfalutin ad agencies and PR firms, many of America's leading academic institutions, and a slew of writers and spokespeople (with and without graduate degrees). This group forms the professional corps of ethanol critics. I disagree with their messages, but I understand the rationale behind prostituting themselves (and, after all, prostitution doesn't carry the social stigma it once did).
These people utilize pseudo-science and wishful thinking, backed by their own academic degrees or the academic degrees held by their fellow corpsmen. I'll address this group shortly.
The non-professional corps of ethanol boo-birds consists largely of unknown and disguised guys and gals who haunt Internet message boards and phone-in call boards of radio talk shows during discussions on fuels, energy, and government subsidies. They offer up some of the most ridiculous lies that you'll ever hear about any subject. They use science fiction. I can't imagine why someone who hides their name and occupation would engage in this behavior since it's unlikely that they can turn in an expense sheet to the American Petroleum Institute for services rendered.
Moreover, why would a neutral reader of the absurd post want to believe someone who won't provide some personal identification and credentials?
One such amateur with a YouTube video blames problems on ethanol because it's "acidic" and causes corrosion. Ethanol is not acidic, and I guess he didn't stop to think about water, which also causes corrosion, and is not acidic. Another amateur critic of ethanol with a YouTube video claims that ethanol contains particles of corn (he holds up a glass jar for everyone to see), and that it is these particles that cause blockage of the fuel system. If his ethanol-gasoline fuel has solid particles in it it's because the oil company that blended and distributes the fuels did something very wrong, not because of ethanol. This ridiculous explanation defies all understanding of science and the distillation process.
Not all of the amateur boo-birds take on anonymity and silly screen names, some do use real names to go along with their own outrageous lies and exaggerations about ethanol. Still, understanding what benefit these folks get from spreading outlandish information is beyond me.
Case in point: I recently came across one such knucklehead who has no shame in revealing his identity. His name is Jack Flobeck and he wrote an article that was published in The Gazette, a Pulitzer Prize winning Colorado Springs newspaper (so they say). The story was published on September 22, 2013 under the title "The Water And Corn Cost For A Gallon Of Ethanol." The reason I only recently came across this article is because it was just used by a member of our audience as an authoritative expose' against ethanol.
Mr. Flobeck, by the way, identifies himself as "the founder of Aqua Prima Center, a nonprofit think tank for water research."
In the article, Mr. Flobeck tries to make the case that too much water is needed to make ethanol, in particular how much water is required to grow corn. Right at the top of the article, Mr. Flobeck writes:
"I am frequently asked, 'How much water does it take to make a gallon of ethanol?' I respond, Yes, and there are a myriad moving parts, and approximations, too."
I read this opening paragraph once, twice, three times. I shook my head and read it again. Then I poured myself a cup of coffee and read it again. Even with a fresh shot of caffeine to stimulate my brain, I couldn't figure out how his response is an answer to the question he says he is frequently asked. It appeared to me to be just double-talk.
So then I did what I often do when I'm confronted by this kind of situation, I go to the master, the world's foremost authority, Professor Irwin Corey, and I watched one of his videos on YouTube. Sure enough, Jack Flobeck was writing in double-talk.
Well, as he continues, Mr. Flobeck uses wrong information, irrelevant information, and he takes information out of context. He has created a con-man shell game - for unknown reasons.
He writes: "Most of our ethanol is made in Iowa, and ... a quick and dirty answer to our question might be the way the citizens of Burley, Idaho, analyzed the question of constructing an ethanol plant in their town; simply by dividing the water used at the plant by the gallons of ethanol produced. When that number came to 1/8 of the town's daily total water supply, or 3 gallons of water for every gallon of ethanol; they simply squelched the plant. However, they neglected to consider the amount of water to raise the corn used by the plant. With 50 acres needed to grow corn for a gallon of ethanol, we calculate that it would take 5,480 acre feet of water to grow the corn, which doesn't appear high, unless you realize that equals 1.7 billion gallons of water, or 75 more gallons of water per gallon of ethanol."
Here's what is wrong with Mr. Flobeck's statement: Iowa does not make most of our ethanol, only about 20% is made in Iowa. Twenty percent of something is not "most." Iowa also does not grow most of the corn used to make ethanol, they grow less than 2% of the total corn grown in the U.S. However, whatever the Iowa numbers are, what does it have to do with Burley, Idaho? And if a town in Idaho is reluctant to utilize a significant portion of their water resources to make ethanol, what does that have to do with the towns in Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska and the 18 other states that make more ethanol per year than Iowa. Mr. Flobeck is playing a shell game.
In addition, 50 acres of corn does not equal one gallon of ethanol; one acre of corn is enough to make more than 400 gallons of ethanol. He's off by a factor of 2000.
Then, to further confuse the issue and the casual reader, Mr. Flobeck writes about the amount of water required to grow corn in order to cement his double-talk testimony. To use Flobeck's own words, he "neglects to consider" that the vast majority of the water required to grow corn in the top corn growing states comes from rain. And he of course doesn't follow through on explaining that all of the water used to grow corn (and all other crops) eventually evaporates and falls again and again and again, ad infinitum. It is perhaps nature's most basic cyclical process. The use and reuse of water is quite unlike the issue of petroleum oil depletion - oil taken from the ground and used in gasoline and diesel fuel will never be available again for re-use.
Oh, by the way, if you try to get information about Jack Flobeck and his nonprofit think tank for water research, Aqua Prima Center, you'll find no information. The phone number provided for the organization is also used by the Woman's Club of Colorado Springs, and it seems that Mr. Flobeck is in the business of selling residential water purification systems. As I wrote above, it's a con man's shell game. How and why he would be engaged in disseminating lies about ethanol is beyond any reasonable conjecture.
On the professional ethanol opposition circuit are college professors, magazine writers, talk show hosts, auto mechanics, and energy consultants. Their names include David Pimentel, Tad Patzek, Robert Bryce, Jerry Taylor, Richard Rahn, David Shepardson, Tim Searchinger, Barry Ritholtz, Jillian Kay Melchor, Jay Leno, Dennis Prager, Lauren Fix, John Stossel, Michael Economedes, Ed Wallace, Kenneth Green, and George David Banks. In the interest of brevity I left some names off the list. Of these people with academic degrees, you could put all the degrees together and they wouldn't be worth a plug nickel when it comes to knowing anything about ethanol.
If you try to understand where most of their bad scientific information comes from, you would find Pimentel and Patzek are the fount of contemporary disinformation.
Back in the mid part of the last decade, Professors Pimentel and Patzek were paid to present a study that claimed ethanol was energy-negative (that it takes more energy to make ethanol than it puts out). David Pimentel was at Cornell University at the time, and Tad Patzek was at University of California at Berkeley. They are the grandfathers of the energy-negative argument against ethanol (EROEI). Virtually every ethanol opponent has used information from this study at one time or another, even if they don't know where the information came from. All the opponents believe that the Pimentel-Patzek information was never disputed or rebutted - or if they know, they act like it didn't happen. To make matters worse, none of them conducted any of their own research, they just relied on Pimentel and Patzek.
In fact, not only has the Pimentel-Patzek information been refuted, it was countered almost as soon as the information was released by people who have just as many, if not more, academic credentials. For example, in 2005, Bruce Dale (Professor of Chemical Engineering at Michigan State University), found that the Pimentel-Patzek methodology is flawed. Dale stated that the measurements of BTU used by Pimentel and Patzek are irrelevant and that the net energy of ethanol is actually higher than gasoline (in other words, EROEI for ethanol is positive, while the EROEI of gasoline is more negative).
Also in 2005, Professor Dale, along with John Sheehan, Senior Engineer - National Renewable Energy Laboratory, took on Pimentel and Patzek in a nationally televised debate. After watching the video of the debate it's hard to believe that anyone ever took Pimentel-Patzek seriously. The entire video can be watched by CLICKING HERE.
In 2006, professors and students at the Resources Group at UC Berkeley (Patzek's home) published a study that contradicted the Pimentel-Patzek study. Another study, conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture, was presented in 2007 at UC Berkeley - what a coincidence - by Roger Conway, Office of Energy Policy and New Uses at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The report showed huge discrepancies in the figures that Pimentel and Patzek used to arrive at their conclusions versus the figures used by USDA's efforts to conduct their own studies on ethanol vs. gasoline EROEI. The USDA studies were significantly more favorable towards ethanol production.
In 2008, Tad Patzek left UC Berkeley to join the University of Texas at Austin. Just a coincidence? I think not. Needless to say, Texas is the home of the petroleum oil industry in America.
Additional rebuttal studies against Pimentel and Patzek continued for years right up to today. I document all this on TheAutoChannel.com at Truth About Ethanol, part 5.
Pimentel and Patzek's chief disciple - by way of being the person who has continued to stick to the Pimentel-Patzek lies the longest - is Robert Bryce. Nearly 10 years after he used the Pimentel-Patzek information in his book "GUSHER OF LIES," Mr. Bryce continues to spew the same bad information without regard for any of the rebuttal studies or findings, or more accurate calculations related to water use, crop yields, and the like.
Less than two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to contact Kenneth P. Green; holder of Ph.D, B.S. and M.S. degrees; author of three books on the environment, and Senior Director of the Center for Natural Resource Studies at the Fraser Institute. A visitor to The Auto Channel website referred Mr. Green to me as his source for information that opposes ethanol. I read the paper that Mr. Green wrote in 2008 for American Enterprise Institute titled "Ethanol and the Environment," and then re-watched a video that Mr. Green did after the publication of his paper (coincidentally, I had watched it some months ago in the normal course of my continuing study of the issue).
I wrote to Mr. Green asking if he had done any further work on this subject, after 2008, and if he knew that everything he stated against ethanol was either out of date, irrelevant, or never true to begin with. He wrote back and replied "I'm quite sure that, by now, many of those citations are out of date, however, at the time, they were the most recent and best data available. You're also welcome to point out the 'never true to begin with' elements of the paper." He suggested that I go back and review the reference list located at the end of his 2008 article.
I did go back and review the reference list, and found a highlighted note of appreciation to Robert Bryce. It reads, "Mr. Green would like to thank Robert Bryce, whose excellent book GUSHER OF LIES was an immense source of insight and who pointed the author to articles and reports cited here." The reference list then also cited multiple specific attributions to Robert Bryce's book.
I responded to Mr. Green and congratulated him on recognizing that information is subject to correction and re-evaluation over time, and I directed him to the lengthy rebuttal I had written to GUSHER OF LIES in 2013 that details many of the incorrect things that Mr. Bryce wrote about ethanol. My rebuttal to GUSHER OF LIES also demonstrates that a fair portion of the information Bryce relied upon at the time of its writing was already known to be wrong, out-of-date, and/or irrelevant.
The obvious intention in my response to Mr. Green is that footnoting a paper with irrelevant attributions and wrong or unfounded information does not make the paper true and authoritative. He did nothing but assemble some bad information that happened to fit the requirements handed down to him from the oil industry and AEI.
As I wrote above, Kenneth Green is not the first person to rely on Robert Bryce and assume that he vetted the information he included in GUSHER OF LIES. To make matters worse, none of them conducted any of their own research. I doubt they even ever tried running a vehicle on any ethanol-gasoline blend higher than standard E10.
All this reliance and reconsideration of Robert Bryce made me go back and take another look at Mr. Bryce's background. He is today said to be an energy expert. In reading his articles and book, and watching videos he appeared in 6, 8, 10 years ago, he was introduced even then as an energy expert. But was he an energy expert?
Reading Robert Bryce's bio on Wikipedia it states that he's written about energy issues for more than two decades. This sounds pretty good, but then it turns out he was really just a general news reporter for The Austin Chronicle from about 1994 to 2006. He did some energy related stories, but he also did other stories, such as stories about Madalyn Murray O'Hair. However, I don't think that Mr. Bryce considers himself an expert on atheism, cults, or kidnapping.
In or about 2006 he went to work as the managing editor of Energy Tribune (now defunct). He doesn't seem to have been the energy expert, or one of the energy experts, at Energy Tribune; he simply managed the work flow of those who might have laid legitimate claim to being an energy expert.
After about one year or so at Energy Tribune he wrote GUSHER OF LIES. From reading the book, you get no sense that he conducted any of his own scientific or hands-on research. So how was he an energy expert at the time of writing GUSHER OF LIES. Mr. Bryce did spend about five months also working for Robert Bradley at the Institute for Energy Research during some of the time he was working on the book, but how much could he have learned in 5 months. Not only that, but from my own personal correspondence with Robert Bradley, Mr. Bradley confessed that there are significant details related to ethanol that he never knew and never included in his own published works.
Looking up an inverted funnel of how contemporary ethanol opposition is presented we see the petroleum oil industry paying for a bogus study by Professors Pimentel and Patzek, their information being used blindly by Robert Bryce, and then his information being accepted by dozens or hundreds of others as if Bryce actually knew what he was talking about.
It's now 2017, a decade after the publication of GUSHER OF LIES. Is it possible that Robert Bryce is now an energy expert? Yes, you can learn a lot in 10 years. But if he's learned a lot about the issue over the last 10 years, why is he still peddling the same old rubbish?
For more fun, also read:
Unmasking The Gas Roots of Contemporary Ethanol Opposition
Unmasking The Gas Roots of Contemporary Ethanol Opposition - Round 2
TRUTH ABOUT ETHANOL - 60+ page Reply to Robert Bryce's GUSHER OF LIES
Life As We Might Have Known It: What If Ethanol Was Our Primary Engine Fuel
The Rise & Fall of General Motors and the Subjugation of the Industrialized World
The Irrelevance Of BTU Rating - Big Oil's Gimmick To Hoodwink The Public
Every Spark-Ignited Internal Combustion Engine Ever Produced Has Been Damaged By Gasoline
Why Do Small Engines Suffer From Ethanol Problems?
Ethanol Does NOT Suck Water Out Of The Air
The Ethanol Dividend