Rapier Response to Miglietta


First of all, I would like to thank Joseph Miglietta for taking up my Ethanol Debate Challenge. I firmly believe that the best way to get to evaluate some of these claims is by having an open debate, with both sides presenting their arguments, and defending them from criticisms. If you are already an ethanol believer, you aren’t going to be convinced by FAQs from the American Petroleum Institute. Likewise, if you are already an ethanol skeptic, you aren’t going to be convinced by FAQs from the American Coalition for Ethanol. But, head to head exchanges offer a chance to critique the other side and determine whether the arguments hold up.

I agree with some of what Joseph writes, and on other parts I don’t feel strongly one way or another. I will only address those arguments that I feel need rebutting. But first, I will open with a brief statement explaining my position.

My opposition to ethanol is primarily due to the inefficiency of the process. My opening commentary here is primarily aimed at grain ethanol. I know Joseph acknowledged that this is not the best way, but it is the way we are subsidizing and promoting it here in the U.S. To make ethanol, we use petroleum-fueled tractors to plow the fields. We apply petroleum-based herbicides to kill the weeds. We apply petroleum-based pesticides to kill the bugs. We apply petroleum-based fertilizers to feed the plants. We harvest the corn with petroleum-fueled tractors, and ship the corn to the ethanol plants in petroleum-fueled trucks. The ethanol plants are natural gas hogs, consuming enormous quantities to ferment and purify an ethanol solution that is primarily water. We then ship the ethanol, often halfway across the country, in petroleum-fueled trucks. The customer on the receiving end pays less than market price for the ethanol, due to the subsidies, which are paid by taxpayers. Then, they suffer a decrease in gas mileage, meaning they have to fuel up more often.

Some of the proponents think switching to ethanol is a way to “stick it to Big Oil”. What they overlook is that Big Oil benefits greatly at all steps of the ethanol process. They make the fossil fuels that drive the tractors. They supply the petrochemicals that make the fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. And who do you think is the largest natural gas producer in the U.S.? I will give you a hint: One of the members of “Big Oil”.

The energy balance of ethanol has been much discussed, but here is the problem in a nutshell. Let’s look at the 2002 USDA study on the topic. If you look at Table 1, you will see that the USDA authors estimate fossil fuel inputs of 77,228 BTUs to make 84,100 BTUs of ethanol. So, the energy balance would be a positive 9%. They report a positive balance of 34%, but that’s because they include some BTU value for co-product credits (animal feed). But as far as fossil fuels in and ethanol out, it’s 9%. (However, the USDA did admittedly omit some energy inputs, so it is still possible that the energy balance is actually negative). In a later 2004 publication, they played with the math a bit, assigning a large fraction of the energy inputs to the co-products. This allowed them to claim 67% energy returned, but is merely an accounting trick that I addressed here.

Often overlooked in these analyses is the fact that soil is eroded during the process of growing the corn, and pesticide, herbicide, and fertilizer runoff all end up in our waterways. So, in light of all this, I have to ask if it actually makes sense to support such a process. Wouldn’t we be far better off just using the natural gas to directly fuel our vehicles? Every step in the process of making ethanol has efficiency losses. The more steps in the process, the higher the efficiency losses. Every BTU of heat that ends up radiating into the environment during the process is a BTU that did no useful work. By directly using the natural gas to fuel the vehicles, the cost would be far lower to the consumer and the taxpayer, and the efficiency much greater. Billions of dollars of subsidies would be eliminated in the process. Why, oh why do we continue down this insane path?

Next, I will address some specifics from Joseph.

Response to Specific Arguments

JM: Especially here in the South where I now live, people’s knowledge on this subject is abysmal. So, if by means of these debates we can contribute a little to this effect, I would feel rewarded.

The problem is not limited to the South. It is ubiquitous. The media and the politicians seem to understand very little about this issue. Above, I asked the rhetorical question of why we continue down this path. The answer is that people are generally uninformed with respect to ethanol. They often have certain cherished beliefs that they have not been forced to defend. Therefore, they continue merrily along in the belief that ethanol may in fact be the solution, or a substantial part of the solution to our oil dependence.

JM: Conservation could be a solution to the oil crisis; it would also help traffic congestion, not to mention the lessening of environmental problems. But in my opinion, it is a step backward in our progress. Crises offer incentives for improvement; going back, instead, imply defeat.

I strongly disagree. In the long-term, our energy needs must be met with sustainable solutions. The status quo can’t be maintained, because there is simply no alternative out there that compares to pumping an energy rich liquid fuel right out of the ground. We must conserve. We can do this voluntarily, and government can pass policies to encourage us to do so. Otherwise, we will do it involuntarily, because we simply can’t get the energy we need. No alternatives can meet our current energy desires. Conservation has to be instilled in every one of us.

JM: Of course, producing ethanol from grain (corn) is not the best way. In general, producing ethanol from starch is by far less energy efficient than from sugars. If all the arable land in our country would be cultivated for corn for ethanol production, it would hardly make a significant dent in our fuel consumption. (I am exaggerating here a little to stress my point).

That’s just the thing, though. You really aren’t exaggerating at all. We might be able to produce 10 billion gallons of ethanol. If we turned 100% of the corn crop into ethanol, we would produce the equivalent of less than 15% of our annual gasoline consumption. However, that is not on a net basis. On a net basis, since you consumed fossil fuels that could have been used as transportation fuels, in reality you would displace less than 5% of our energy consumption by turning 100% of the corn crop into ethanol.

JM: A 10% incorporation of ethanol in gasoline, or E10, may sometime in the near future be nationwide. Sure, we can achieve this only by government subsidy, but it’s a start. Subsidies are supposed to be temporary measures. In the meantime, this will create an incentive to find more efficient ways to handle starch.

These subsidies started being handed out almost 30 years ago. Yet today, the entire ethanol market is still dependent upon continuation of these handouts. It simply can’t exist without subsidies or mandates, and people should ask why. What they will find is that it is because ethanol is so dependent upon fossil fuels for its manufacture. People expect the process to improve, and thus ethanol will become cheaper, but they overlook the fact that the fossil fuel inputs will really drive the price of ethanol higher as oil becomes more scarce. The fact of the matter is that ethanol is primarily a fossil fuel, because that’s what it is made from.

JM: Research is being conducted to use cheaper starting materials.

I agree that cellulosic ethanol offers more hope. I think research in this area should continue to be generously funded. However, unless the fossil fuel inputs can be substantially decoupled from the ethanol production process, or the energy balance can be significantly improved, then ethanol of any sort will be a dead end. The energy balance for cellulosic appears to be better, but other factors have inhibited market penetration. So, it is worth further pursuit, but we need to rigorously evaluate the claims.

JM: We are pressed with time in view of the mounting competition for oil from China and India, its spiraling prices, global warming, not to mention that we are indirectly financing terrorism. For these very reasons, we need to import ethanol and reduce the import of oil.

Given the marginal energy balance, there is little to no global warming benefit. If you saw the recent 60 Minutes special, you saw ethanol proponent Daniel Kammen say that the greenhouse gas reduction would be “modest”. That comment right there should tell you just how “renewable” ethanol really is. Note that this does not even factor in the greenhouse gas emissions from the by-products, which cause cattle to emit more methane – a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

JM: One of the reasons I content is why we impose a tariff on a cleaner fuel imported from friendly countries and import tariff-free oil from rogue countries. The reason should be obvious: oil companies are the powerful force behind. Their tactics is simple: increase the price of gasoline at the pump, and then decrease it by a few cents to pacify the animosity of the public. But oil companies are not the only force against ethanol imports.

Sorry, but this one falls entirely at the feet of ethanol producers. They are the ones who lobbied against the bill to drop the ethanol tariff. Since ethanol is mandated, oil companies want to find the cheapest source of ethanol they can find. It is of no benefit to them to lobby against the tariffs. Perhaps you caught this recent story: Boehner won’t push to cut ethanol tariff Some excerpts:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – In a big win for U.S. ethanol producers, House Majority Leader John Boehner said on Monday he will not push legislation to reduce the U.S. tariff on ethanol imports.

U.S. oil refiners are scrambling to secure ethanol supplies to mix with gasoline this summer as they switch from using the water-polluting fuel additive MTBE. But the Energy Department has warned that U.S. ethanol supplies will fall short and refiners will need to rely on more imports.

Farm state lawmakers, whose corn-grower constituents supply the feedstock for making the vast majority of U.S. ethanol, strongly oppose easing the U.S. tariffs on foreign, and therefore competing, ethanol shipments.

“Boehner has always been an ardent supporter of the ethanol industry,” his spokesman said. “The industry is important for strengthening the economy in rural America and weaning the U.S. from its dependence on foreign oil.”

The Renewable Fuels Association, the ethanol industry trade group whose members include giant agriprocessor Archer Daniels Midland Co., said in a recent letter to House and Senate leadership that “removing the tariff will have no impact on what American drivers are paying at the pump.”

Oil producers want the tariffs suspended. Consumers want them suspended. Ethanol producers don’t.

JM: Brazil has much less cars than us, and a vast territory with ideal climatic conditions for sugar cane. Consequently, they have a surplus of ethanol and they can easily meet an increased demand.

In response to that, I submit some quotes from Brazil’s Ethanol Lesson Is How to Manage Our Oil Addiction:

In reality, ethanol is a minor player in Brazilian energy supply. It accounts for less than one-tenth of all the country’s energy liquids. The real source of Brazil’s self-sufficiency is the country’s extraordinary success in producing more oil.

Yet, even with Brazil’s favorable climate and sugar’s inviting biology, ethanol is already reaching the limit. That’s because the land and other resources devoted to ethanol can be put to other uses such as growing food and cash crops.

Indeed, today the Brazilian government is actually reducing the share of ethanol that must be blended into gasoline because sugar growers prefer to make even more money by selling their product as sugar on the world market rather than fermenting it into alcohol.

JM: I know no other alternatives for ethanol; better perhaps, but not as commercially readily available as ethanol. Eventually, ethanol will be phased out but I don’t think this will happen for many years to come.

How about Plug-In Hybrids (PHEVs)? How about lowering the speed limit? How about raising CAFE standards to European levels? How about more tax incentives for purchasing fuel efficient vehicles ? Those are all better uses of our alternative energy dollar than a scheme to turn natural gas and petroleum into ethanol via a process that has a marginal energy return.

JM: E10 will not make us energy independent. But E85 would.

No, it wouldn’t. We consume far too much fuel, and can’t make enough ethanol. Realistically, it would be difficult for us to get to a 15% ethanol blend nationwide.

JM: I use the word “alcohol” to include methanol, which could be produced from coal, and we have the world’s largest reserve of it. The technology has not yet been developed, however.

Sure it has. This is how Sasol produces methanol in South Africa. There is nothing at all that is complex about it; it’s just easier to use natural gas than coal.

With that, I will close. If you wish to continue the exchange, please respond in the comments section, or e-mail me your response. I will get it formatted and posted within a few days.

14 thoughts on “Rapier Response to Miglietta”

  1. Wouldn’t we be far better off just using the natural gas to directly fuel our vehicles? Every step in the process of making ethanol has efficiency losses. The more steps in the process, the higher the efficiency losses.


    Yes, we would. That is a point I’ve often made with my friends in the corn ethanol industry.

    The only reason we use corn for making ethanol is that we have subsidized corn agriculture for decades and our corn farmers have all become addicted to raising corn. In the part of the country where I live, in April all the farmers say, “Hey, it’s April, let’s go plant corn.” with no regard for whether we need all that corn, or whether there are other crops they could grow that would use less fertilizer and have fewer adverse effects on the environment.

    The result is we grow so much corn; we have to find some way to use it. (There is even talk around here of corn-burning stoves to heat houses. How dumb is that? Using natural gas to grow corn so you can burn the corn in a stove?) Making ethanol from all that corn is just too attractive a thing for corn farmers who have spent all their lives learning to grow corn, even though it doesn’t make sense from an environmental or thermodynamics perspective.

    If someone started with a blank piece of paper to design a process for making ethanol, who would ever decide to use natural gas and diesel oil to grow corn as a middle step, and then use more natural gas (or increasingly coal) to turn that corn into ethanol?

    A chemical engineer designing a process from scratch would design a chemical process to turn natural gas or coal directly into a liquid fuel, eliminating the inefficiency of that middle agricultural step.

    Unfortunately, no one in the corn ethanol business set out to design the optimum process for making ethanol. Instead, it evolved out of modern, factory monoculture, and it doesn’t make sense. And what’s worse is there is no way now to change the momentum of the corn ethanol industry because of the politics involved. Would any Presidential candidate ever make it through the Iowa caucuses if he or she doesn’t support corn ethanol?


    Gary Dikkers

  2. Let me thank you for conducting this debate on your blog. It is very nice to be able to read the well thought out positions on this subject. Debates on other media like TV and Radio simply fail to capture the nuances of such a complex topic.

  3. “There is even talk around here of corn-burning stoves to heat houses. How dumb is that? Using natural gas to grow corn so you can burn the corn in a stove?”

    Many of the Amish around here (SE Iowa) use corn stoves. Of course, their fossil fuel inputs to the corn they grow is minimal.

    The only reason to use biomass of any kind as a fuel source is to release the solar energy captured by the biomass. Biomass is essentially nothing more than a storage device for solar energy.

    If we are going to use biomass as fuel, then we should use plants that capture that energy most efficiently or from which the energy can be released most efficiently. (Both efficiencies in a perfect world). I have no idea what those plants are. Corn probably isn’t one of them.

  4. hmmm. Seems to me that part of the problem is getting farmers to do unfamiliar crops like switchgrass and sugar cane.

    I understand that soy, a very commmon crop, takes much less fertilizer. What % of the fossil fuel input to corn ethanol comes from fertilizer? Can you do soy ethanol? Would it be significantly better?

  5. Soybeans don’t have a whole lot of starch.  What they have is protein (good for tofu) and oil.  Soybean oil can be made into biodiesel, but IIRC it’s not the best-yielding crop for that either.  Attention appears to be on “canola” (rapeseed) for biodiesel.

  6. If we are going to use biomass as fuel, then we should use plants that capture that energy most efficiently or from which the energy can be released most efficiently. (Both efficiencies in a perfect world). I have no idea what those plants are. Corn probably isn’t one of them.


    Your darn tootin’ corn isn’t one of them. Growing corn captures about 2% of the solar energy that falls on a cornfield. We’d capture more solar energy by covering the earth with black plastic and letting the Sun heat the soil, then using that heated soil as an energy source.

    The hard truth is that growing corn on a “modern” industrial Iowa corn operation is utterly dependent on natural gas. Without nitrogen fertilizers made from natural gas, there would be no 160-200 bushel yields corn farms in the Midwest.

    My grandfather was a corn and dairy farmer in the 1930’s through the 1950’s. He thought he was doing well to achieve yields of 60-70 bushels an acre. His yields were low compared to today, but his farm was also sustainable. He never bought a pound of nitrogen fertilizer in his life. His dairy cows provided the fertilizer, and he also rotated his crops. Ask the modern industrial corn farmer nearest you when he last drove a manure spreader, or let a cornfield lay fallow for a year, or planted the field with oats or alfalfa. When you drive across Illinois or Iowa and see mile after mile after mile of cornfields, you know the answer to that question.

    Your Amish farmers are much like my Grandfather. If they want to burn corn to heat their homes, more power to them. At least they aren’t raising that corn using natural gas, and their cornfields are sustainable and renewable. You can’t say that about modern industrial corn farming — take way their nitrogen, and modern corn farming would soon wither.

    I recently found a particularly ironic quote from Terry Hilgedick who is president of the Missouri Corn Growers Association. He testified before Congress last year and part of his testimony urged Congress to open ANWR for drilling because corn farmers depended on the fertilizer, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides chemical companies make from natural gas. What was ironic was his statement that corn farmers couldn’t continue growing corn for renewable fuels unless fertilizer companies could find inexpensive sources of natural gas.

    It made me wonder if he even realized the irony in his statement and whether he actually knew the meaning of “renewable.” I suspect that Hilgedick and most other corn farmers think corn ethanol is a renewable fuel only because they can grow a new crop of corn each year.

    For those interested, Hilgedick’s testimony is at:



    Gary Dikkers

  7. Gary,

    Your link was chopped off above. The link to Hilgedick’s testimony is:

    Hilgedick Testifies for Ethanol

    I also learned something very interesting tonight. After the talk of increasing the compression ratio of engines burning ethanol, I looked up the octane of natural gas. E85 has an octane of 105, but natural gas has an octane of 130. A dedicated natural gas vehicle could have a higher compression ratio, and therefore a higher efficiency than an ethanol-fueled vehicle. This means that without a doubt, we would be better off just converting vehicles to natural gas. The overall savings would be in the billions.


  8. Methane may have a sky-high octane rating, but its flame speed is so low that it seriously affects engine efficiency.  I’ve read on GCC that the use of Hythane (20% H2, 80% CH4) increases the flame speed enough to offset this undesirable characteristic.

  9. EP, I actually have a bit of experience with hydrogen flame temps. This is true. You have to be very careful when there is a bit of hydrogen in reactor feeds, because the reaction speed will increase, and can back up into the feedline.

    I knew that methane’s flame speed was lower than hydrogens’, but I wouldn’t have thought it would have been worse than the liquid fuels.


  10. You imply that we shouldn’t consider the energy input or energy output when addressing the contribution of feed byproducts of the ethanol production process.

    Why not?

  11. You imply that we shouldn’t consider the energy input or energy output when addressing the contribution of feed byproducts of the ethanol production process.

    Why not?

    By doing this, I am merely showing the effect of fuels in and fuels out. It is certainly fine to consider by-products, but then you need to make an evaluation of the energy inputs into what the by-products displaced in order to get the real net. I have never seen anyone attempt to do this. Besides, given that the USDA ignored all of the secondary inputs, I think ignoring the BTU value in the co-products is a fair tradeoff.

    None of these energy balances are as comprehensive as they need to be in order to get a true picture of what’s going on. But the fact that the ethanol industry can’t survive without the subsidies should be a tipoff that the true energy balance is not good.


  12. Tom,
    Robert commented on it both ways – you can create an ‘energy-to-energy’ ratio if all you care about is energy – clearly in this case, coproducts are less important if all you care about is energy. If the co-products truly are desirable, then you can add an energy credit into the input side of the EROI equation, which would tend to increase the energy balance of ethanol. However, many of the co-products, like dry distiller grains (DDGs) as Robert points out, have questionable desirability. There is a finite limit of what % of feed an animal can receive in DDGs. It makes them sick, fart, etc. Scaling ethanol nationally above a certain level would go way beyond the amount of DDGs we could use for cattle, hence the energy input only is effective for the first few billion gallons.

    I recently did an analysis of a biodigester plant using manure lagoons from dairy cattle to produce marketable methane. We would need sustainably much higher NG prices to make this really economical. But the coproducts of milk, bedding, etc make it almost feasible. Society has many demands currently – if we REALLY just care about energy, we would toss the cows and the grass they consume directly into the biodigester. It may come to that.

    2 other quick points.

    1)I second the notion that ethanol is just another in a long history of politically and business motivated misallocation of our nations excess corn crops. We had so much corn 100+ years ago that they turned the excess into whiskey and created a huge industry. Then, during prohibition, there was huge amounts of excess corn being unused. The high fructose corn syrup industry was born and the nation soon had to build wider seats in movie theatres due to bigger bums. We really need to entertain the thought that other crops would be better for environment, energy, food, etc. The momentum of corn has taken us way too far in the monculture direction.

    2)Briefly, two other things are not being totally factored into the energy balance of corn ethanol. Robert alluded to lower mileage – when one considers what % of a gas tank is used to go to the gas station each 400 miles, this % will go up using ethanol due to more fillups. Second and more important, is the huge standard deviation of expected yield of corn. If the nation builds an infrastructure around corn ethanol and depends on it on a yearly basis, what happens with the first drought or flood season, which are probably increasingly likely given the higher dispersion in weather patterns. Brazils ethanol crop crashed in 2001 – they actually had to import ethanol from Archer Daniels in that year.

    Roberts article above is one the best written Ive seen on this topic. It amazes me that so much money and momentum flies in the face of the facts he raises. But I guess thats the point-corn-ethanol is all about money and momentum.

  13. One of the problems you cite with ethanol is the use of petroleum based technology to produce it. We run our tractors, trucks, trains, etc., on petroleum products. In addition, the ethanol processing itself uses natural gas for heat.

    But what if we had an ‘ethanol economy’, or something closer to that? What if those vehicles, instead of burning petroleum, were using an ethanol mixture? Does it change the equation any if the tractors and trucks are using E85?

    It seems to me that the bottom line with the ethanol question is, can ethanol be self-sustaining? Could we profitably produce ethanol using a process whose only energy inputs were ethanol, and still get useful quantities out?

  14. What if those vehicles, instead of burning petroleum, were using an ethanol mixture? Does it change the equation any if the tractors and trucks are using E85?

    If the ethanol EROI is substantially better than 1, it could be done. But it is going to mean much, much more expensive fuel. Europe has $7 gasoline, and ethanol hasn’t made much of a dent. That suggests to me that the true price for self-sustaining ethanol will be more than that. This analysis backs that up:

    Ethanol Production: at $7.24/Gas-Gallon-saved?

    If the EROI is 1 or less, then it can never be self-sustaining. In fact, I doubt it can be self-sustaining at the reported EROI of 1.3, because most of that “.3” excess is animal feed credits.


Comments are closed.