John McCain’s Ethanol Flip-Flop

I knew that McCain had flip-flopped on this issue. The upcoming issue of Fortune tells the tale:

McCain’s farm flip

It’s a pretty good lesson on how tough it is to oppose ethanol and get yourself elected president, since Iowa has one of the first presidential caucus. So, despite McCain’s long track record of criticizing ethanol, suddenly it’s the thing to do.

Some excerpts from the article that I found interesting:

John McCain has a problem with alcohol – ethyl alcohol, to be precise. Ethyl alcohol is the fuel better known as ethanol, and over the years, the Arizona senator has made a habit of ripping ethanol subsidies as corporate pork for agribusinesses like Archer Daniels

McCain has argued that government support for ethanol actually raises gasoline prices. He has claimed ethanol does nothing to make the U.S. more energy independent. He has even questioned the science behind making fuel from corn – contending that ethanol provides less energy than the fossil fuels consumed to produce it.

But for a front-runner – one presumably interested in getting his as-yet-undeclared 2008 Republican presidential campaign off to a winning start – opposing ethanol is political lunacy.

Iowa, home to the first-in-the-nation presidential caucus, is the biggest corn-growing state in the country, and in Iowa ethanol isn’t just another campaign issue. It’s the cash cow, the golden goose and the fountain of economic youth all wrapped up in one.

This is how something that is good for Iowa, but not necessarily for the rest of us, can become national policy.


Against this backdrop, it’s obvious why McCain’s past ethanol opposition is such an albatross. Fact is, criticizing ethanol is hard even for scientists these days.

At a recent BP-sponsored ethanol roundtable, University of California at Berkeley engineering professor Tad Patzek – whose anti-ethanol research McCain has invoked – so riled Roger Conway, the director of energy policy for the very pro-ethanol U.S. Department of Agriculture, that Conway told the foreign-born Patzek to “go back to Poland.” (Conway denies making the remark, but four other participants confirm he did, including pro-ethanol scientist Michael Wang of the Argonne National Laboratory.)

Here’s the before and after. The before:

For a politician like McCain, the stakes go far beyond a little name-calling. When McCain ran for president in 1999 and 2000, he barely campaigned in Iowa, knowing that his anti-ethanol stance wouldn’t cut it in corn country.

Four years later, McCain hadn’t changed his tune. “Ethanol is a product that would not exist if Congress didn’t create an artificial market for it. No one would be willing to buy it,” McCain said in November 2003. “Yet thanks to agricultural subsidies and ethanol producer subsidies, it is now a very big business – tens of billions of dollars that have enriched a handful of corporate interests – primarily one big corporation, ADM. Ethanol does nothing to reduce fuel consumption, nothing to increase our energy independence, nothing to improve air quality.”

Even the most slippery politician would have a tough time wriggling away from a statement as unequivocal as that one, yet McCain’s Straight Talk Express has been taking some audacious detours during recent trips to Iowa.

The after:

“I support ethanol and I think it is a vital, a vital alternative energy source not only because of our dependency on foreign oil but its greenhouse gas reduction effects,” he said in an August speech in Grinnell, Iowa, as reported by the Associated Press.

“Well, at least now we know he’s serious about running for president,” quips Brown University presidential politics expert Darrell West, upon being told of McCain’s ethanol about-face.

And the money quote:

“You can’t trash ethanol and expect to win in Iowa,” says Schmidt. “You can’t continue to say the same things McCain said – even if you believe they’re true.”

What to do? Maybe some other states need to move their primaries ahead of Iowa’s to stop them from having a disproportionate impact on national politics.

14 thoughts on “John McCain’s Ethanol Flip-Flop”

  1. A reader just sent the following by e-mail on this issue. As he says, this would be funny if the issue weren’t so serious:

    Your comments are on target.

    Most of the analysis on ethanol’s energy contributions have been done by agricultural economists, e.g., Shapouri et al. They make broad assumptions on “paper” process energy balances, and toss in the coproduct to make it look good. As you may have observed, the
    coproducts are a non-energy component.

    The giant void in such analyses is consideration of the net production
    rate of “new” energy. U.S. potential gross production of corn-ethanol could not support an E10 economy even if the entire corn crop were used.

    If the total fossil hydrocarbon (energy and material) inputs are subracted from the potential ethanol production, the actual net energy production is on the order of 6% of the above-noted gross production. It is therefore trivial by any standard.

    ADM’s incentive is clear. They are currently collecting about $149E6 per day in ethanol subsidy payments.

    President Bush’s knowledge of thermodynamics was illustrated by his comments in Wisconsin this year, i.e., “…we’re coming up with a way to make something out of nothing”).

    I have jousted with Wang a couple of times during my seminars at Argonne National Laboratory. He bristled at suggestions that his ethanol energy balances were incorrect. In an illustration presented at the National Press Club, he “showed” that ethanol had a better energy balance than gasoline. It would be funny if the subject weren’t so serious. Can send you the illustration if you are interested.

    Attached is an op-ed that I wrote for Idaho newspapers during the Legislative session earlier this year. The Farm Bureau was promoting mandatory E10 use in Idaho.

    (name deleted)

    p.s., I am also a chemical engineer, having worked in Allied Chemical Corporation
    research facilities in New Jersey, as well as 28 years at the Idaho National Laboratory. I currently hold a Special Term Appointment at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.

  2. Robert,
    Good post! When the subject of politics come up, the challenge is so large, its almost debilitating. American politics is still distorted by the disproportionate representation given to midwestern states by Jefferson, in a move meant to encourage people to move there. The need for people to move there is long gone – unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the outdated distorted representation.

    It is one of America’s few serious shortcomings, IMHO. The inability to update systems that no longer serve a purpose in their existing form. Witness the country’s inability to implement the SI system of units, a move that I believe would save the country $billions (if not $trillions) a year in increased efficiency. Seems like grandfathering must be endured even if it kills the country, or at least allow Asian competitors to eat our lunch.

    But let’s not get too deperessed over the shortcomings of a political system where Ohio (or some other swing state) elects the president and the largest state in the union is relegated piggybank status. (Homework for interested readers: Can you call such a system a democracy?)

    Here is what I suggest can be done, by educated observers, such as yourself:
    1. Educate the public: In other words, keep up the good work.
    2. Be specific: It is no good to state that “U.S. potential gross production of corn-ethanol could not support an E10 economy even if the entire corn crop were used” as your post above mentions. An ethanol hack will just deny it. Put it this way: “In 2005, it is estimated that about 14% of the US corn harvest (about 10 billion bushels) was used to produce 4 billion gallons of ethanol. To put that in perspective, it is enough to replace almost 1% of the US crude demand, after factoring in EtOH’s lower energy content” complete with a reference. No ethanol enthusiast can deny that reality!
    3. There is obviously a lot of debate about whether EtOH is a net energy winner or loser. Rather than getting bogged down in that debate, I would suggest pointing out that even if the most optimistic estimates were right, the gain is so small, you’d be nuts to hold it up as a solution, or worse, good energy policy.
    4. Anybody should be able to understand that converting food into fuel is an incredibly stupid idea, even without any analysis. In a world where hunger is still happening, it is also immoral.

    BTW: This is good info: “ADM’s incentive is clear. They are currently collecting about $149E6 per day in ethanol subsidy payments.” Do we have a reference for that?

  3. Be specific: It is no good to state that “U.S. potential gross production of corn-ethanol could not support an E10 economy even if the entire corn crop were used” as your post above mentions.

    Do note, though, that those are Fortune’s words. I have formulated my arguments more along the lines of what you suggest.

    BTW: This is good info: “ADM’s incentive is clear. They are currently collecting about $149E6 per day in ethanol subsidy payments.” Do we have a reference for that?

    I don’t know how they came up with that, but it can’t possibly be correct. That would be $54 billion a year, which is well more than the entire ethanol production was worth. Maybe they are throwing corn subsidies and something else in there as well. I suspect someone slipped up on that one. I don’t know what ADM’s revenues were, but I doubt it was anywhere close to $54 billion.

    Cheers, Robert

  4. “go back to Poland,” eh? Wow! Now that’s classy!

    Well, we’ve lost another one to the power of Big Corn in Iowa. That’s pretty dissapointing, given how unequivocating McCain has been on this issue in the past. In fact, one of the things that has earned my respect for McCain was his integrity and willingness to stand up and speak his mind, even if that meant bucking party politics, or earning a few enemies.

    Now that he clearly has his eyes on the White House, it seems like he’s starting to cave to the ‘you can’t win without saying what people want to hear’ mentality of politics and leaving his principles behind. That’s really dissapointing to me, but I guess it’s to be expected.

    Thanks for passing this news along. It’s good to know who you can trust to stay principled, and who just wants to win…

  5. To be fair, the quote attributed to McCain is pretty non-specific about supporting ethanol, in contrast to the earlier, plain-spoken remarks. You might have honestly made similar statements, since as much as you make the same points as McCain has in the past, you do support ethanol research, and possibly would support production from more sustainable sources, importation from Brazil, etc. We’ll just have to wait until McCain is forced to give some details of just what he “supports”.

  6. Robert,
    A few more points that need the public’s attention:
    1. Ethanol, like hydrogen, is not necessarily renewable.
    2. Diesel and gasoline are not per definition fossil fuels. Some use the term green diesel to describe diesel made from biomass.
    3. Combine these: Renewable liquid fuel does not have to mean switching to different fuels from the hydrocarbons we are all so familiar with. This is where DOE acts like a dog chasing its tail: Hydrogen! Ethanol! Biodiesel! Butanol! Forget all that. The issue is replacing crude. And, ideally replacing it with a renewable source.
    4. Concerning the environment: Carbon is not the problem; Fossil carbon is. Green diesel is more practical and environment-friendly than biodiesel (FAME), according to some.

  7. Mustard? I don’t think that passes mustard! The problem with oil crops (for biodiesel), like corn ethanol, is that you can only use a tiny fraction of the total biomass for fuel production. Much better to use a technology that can use 100% of (the organic part of) the biomass. To me that means Gasification/Fischer-Tropsch. The resulting fuel is also superior to any alternative, mainly because it is chemically identical to existing fuels.

    What to use as a feedstock? First waste biomass. According to DOE/USDA we can supply one third of our transportation oil needs from agricultural and forestry wastes (much of which currently goes up in flames, to reduce fire risk).

    OK, that leaves two thirds. We an increased efficiency we could probably save another third (wild guess). That leaves a third of our oil needs which must eventually be supplied by an energy crop.

    There is no better energy crop than algae, it produces something like 30 times the biomass per unit of land area, than any other crop produces. But doing so sustainably is not as easy as one might suspect. You need a huge area of land to produce a noticeable crop. Some suggest putting such a pond system in the desert. They have obviously not factored in evaporation rates and how much water you would need just to stay ahead of that.

    I suspect what one would need to do is sacrifice a part of the ocean area somewhere. Encourage algal growth – some suggest you just need to add iron to do that. Harvest, process and produce renewable fertilizer from the ashes.

    Where would one do such a thing? Well, perhaps we just need to start harvesting the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Think of it as a clean-up that pays for itself…

  8. Here’s a typical article the press is running in Iowa.

    Build know-how in Iowa; then export it to the world

    There’s a moral to the story that Iowa should heed: A new energy industry – biofuels – is in its early stages, about where Texas was with oil 90 years ago. Iowa should set its cap to become the Texas of biofuels.

    All signs point to ethanol, biodiesel and perhaps yet-to-be-developed successor biofuels enjoying strong growth over the next several decades. In addition, there is the potential for whole new industries using biomass, instead of petroleum, to make plastics and a host of other products.

    Iowa can be the leader not just in the production of biofuels and biochemicals but in the development of know- ledge that can be sold around the world. After all, the entire world is eventually going to have to learn how to get along without petroleum.

    And then there’s the editorial that claims: There is little not to like about biodiesel. In fact, its energy balance is better than ethanol’s and far better than gasoline’s.

    In other words, the energy that biodiesel releases when it is burned is greater than the fossil fuels used to grow the soybeans and produce the fuel.

    Take it for what’s it worth!!

  9. help me out here. I’m working on a school project, a critique of ethanol. There doesn’t seem to be much noise out there contradicting Wang’s eroi calculations. I’ll look at patzek again. But who else?

  10. There doesn’t seem to be much noise out there contradicting Wang’s eroi calculations. I’ll look at patzek again. But who else?

    What Wang calculated is not actually an EROI. That is the problem. People use the 1.3 number for corn ethanol, which is an EROI, and compare that to the 0.8 for gasoline, which is an efficiency. The EROI of gasoline is about 5/1. I wrote some about this here:

    Energy Balance For Ethanol Better Than For Gasoline?

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  12. Robert – you wrote:

    What Wang calculated is not actually an EROI. That is the problem. People use the 1.3 number for corn ethanol, which is an EROI, and compare that to the 0.8 for gasoline, which is an efficiency. The EROI of gasoline is about 5/1. I wrote some about this here:

    I know youre aware of this, but the disparity of energy balance is misleading when using gross numbers – the NET (which is what we actually can use). Net energy is EROI – 1. In the above example that means gasoline is 4:1 and corn ethanol is .3:1, a difference of 1200%.

    That is the most important comparison – not whether ethanol is net energy positive or not, for indeed we COULD use things that are net energy loser at least in the short term. What ethanol proponents are missing (among other things) is what the .3 energy return is replacing.

    You cant live on pension income that used to be in 20% per year Nasdaq stocks and is now in T-bills.

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