Debunking Robert Zubrin

A reader asked me a while back to take a look at the claims of Robert Zubrin, and comment. So I took a look at his claims, and while I found things that were wrong, I was generally in agreement on his big picture stuff. I concluded with:

Overall, Zubrin is not completely in left field. He strays out there now and then, but his methanol argument is OK. I don’t consider him at all a crackpot…

But today he stepped out onto very thin ice with an editorial that spoke out in favor of our current biofuel policies:

The case for more biofuel

Let’s have a look:

Let’s start with the allegedly misbegotten incentives. The United States invests roughly $3 billion a year through a 51-cent per gallon credit to promote the production and use of renewable fuels like ethanol. The return on that investment? Taxpayers are saving approximately $6 billion that would otherwise be spent on counter-cyclical crop price supports, plus an additional $15 billion reduction in the country’s petroleum import bill.

First off, that $3 billion is based on 6 billion gallons of production. That number is now in the rear view mirror. There is no cap on the level of subsidy, so it just keeps growing as the production grows. If we could possibly get to that 36 billion gallon number, we would be spending $18.4 billion per year. Note that this is just direct federal subsidies. There are various state subsidies as well that add to the total subsidy pie.

But the worst part is that the Zubrin’s calculation is full of holes. To get the number above, Zubrin assumes 6 billion gallons of ethanol production. How much oil will that displace? The BTU value of a barrel of ethanol is just over half that of a barrel of oil. Say 1 barrel of ethanol is equal to about 0.55 barrels of oil. Then the 6 billion gallons of ethanol is worth 3.3 billion gallons of oil (78.6 million barrels). At today’s price of nearly $110/bbl, that only comes out to be $8.6 billion.

But there’s more. Per the most recent USDA publication on the issue, to produce one BTU of ethanol takes over 0.9 BTUs of fossil fuel. Mostly it’s natural gas, but there is some diesel and gasoline for farm trucks and tractors. So let’s say 0.7 BTUs of natural gas and 0.2 BTUs of diesel. That means within that $8.6 billion of “savings”, we still have about $5.3 billion of fossil fuels. (See Calculations at the end).

So Zubrin’s $15 billion savings is down to about $3 billion. On the other hand, there is a value for the DDGS which will add back to the savings, but it falls far short of the number that Zubrin is using to justify the subsidy. But we also haven’t counted up any of the negative externalities, and probably the most important point – you still have to pay for the ethanol. All we have done is add up the fossil fuel inputs. Add up the other costs (water usage, for instance) and Zubrin’s “savings” are now a deficit, but one that is going into certain Midwest states at the expense of everyone else.

Continuing to meander onto the thin ice, Zubrin writes:

Numerous well-documented studies have shown that by replacing oil with fuel made from biomass, America is reducing its net carbon dioxide emissions and thereby taking a bite out of global warming.

Numerous others have shown otherwise. The most recent studies have shown otherwise. And of course the recent Science articles show otherwise. Which to believe?

The claims that biofuel production in the United States might indirectly encourage rainforests to be cut down were published recently in the hallowed pages of the journal Science. But it turns out that “scientific avalanche” is itself being demolished. The studies published in Science offered no new data to substantiate their claim of a causal connection between U.S. ethanol and forest destruction – just a theoretical model that has since been roundly debunked by respected researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory and Biomass Program.

Let me make sure I understand this. The theoretical model for the study in Science has been “roundly debunked” by Argonne? First, Argonne is using a theoretical model as well. Second, note the strong language in the debunking: Michael Wang writes “At this time, it is not clear what land-use changes could occur globally as a result of U.S. corn ethanol production.” Whoa! What a debunking. You publish your study in Science, I reply with “Beats me”, and that’s a debunking! And by the way, was the Argonne model published in a “the hallowed pages of the journal Science” as was the study it presumes to debunk? Why no, it wasn’t.

So on the one hand I have a model from one of the top universities in the U.S. The researchers, formerly ethanol supporters, have no apparent axe to grind against ethanol. The paper is published in the premier peer-reviewed scientific journal. On the other hand I have a model that comes from a political agency in an administration that is very supportive of ethanol – written by Michael Wang, who has a history of being associated with dubious ethanol studies – and a model that was not peer-reviewed in any scientific journal. Tough call.

Meanwhile, real world data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture simultaneously belie claims that American ethanol is causing arable land to be cleared elsewhere and food prices to rise. In fact, the data show that the total acreage devoted to corn in America is not projected to go up, but that annual corn yields are expected to rise steadily – from 155.3 bushels per acre this year to 173.3 bushels per acre in 2017.

They projected that, did they? You know how they make those projections? They use a model. Did the model predict that grain stocks would be where they are today?

Those steady corn supplies are just one reason you can’t blame ethanol for food price increases.

You forgot the word “projected.” Those were “projected steady corn supplies.” You know, from the model. Yet you are treating these as actual data points.

If there is any problem with biofuels it is that America needs to produce more, not less, to put an end to the pick-pocketing of our national purse by OPEC.

Credibility is slipping due to all of these half-baked claims. If this were qualified by specifying methanol from gasification – as your earlier essays indicated – it wouldn’t be a big deal. Coming toward the end of an ill-advised defense of corn ethanol, it is garbage.

If Zubrin continues to write essays like this, he will have no credibility at all on this issue. This is unfortunate, because I think he has a contribution to make if he will stick to ideas that are actually defensible and stop defending that which isn’t. Far better to say “Corn ethanol isn’t ideal, so let’s move beyond it as quickly as possible.” Of course we know that this it not politically feasible, and this “bridge” is going to be permanent right up until even the dumbest politician recognizes the consequences. At that point, we will have driven over the cliff of bad consequences.

Assumptions and Calculations

The basis is six billion gallons of ethanol
One gallon contains 76,000 BTUs
One gallon has an embedded 76,000 (0.7) = 53,200 BTUs of natural gas
Today’s price of natural gas is $10/MMBTU (abnormally high, but so are oil prices)
Then in one gallon of ethanol, there is ($10/1e6)*53200 = $0.53 of natural gas

One gallon has an embedded 76,000 (0.2) = 15,200 BTUs of diesel
Today’s (spot, not retail) price of diesel is $3/gallon.
One gallon of diesel has 130,000 BTUs.
Then in one gallon of ethanol, there is (15,200/130,000)*$3 = $0.35 of diesel

Thus, in one gallon of ethanol we find embedded $0.88 of fossil fuels.
In six billion gallons, there is an embedded $5.3 billion.

29 thoughts on “Debunking Robert Zubrin”

  1. I actually looked that Zfacts claim over before I did my calcs, but thought it was too open for a counter attack.

    I have to say my heart was barely in this debunking. I started on it yesterday and got most of it done, but then I have been busy doing other things today and it almost didn’t seem worth the effort. I was in a combative mood when I started it, but an “Ah, so what?” mood when I finished it off.

  2. In the second last paragraph, did you meant diesel not natural gas on the last line?

    My calculations for the fossil fuel inputs of corn ethanol came out even higher than yours. That and the low solar->usable fuel conversion and poor efficiency of an ICE convinced me ethanol from food was going to be a disaster. I think that was almost 2 years ago. I agree that taking feed corn as it’s currently produced to an ethanol plant as it’s currently fermented and distilled isn’t accomplishing much besides politics.

    I don’t think corn ethanol is going to go away just by the fact that it doesn’t make any sense. The only way I can see it happening is if there is a serious corn crop failure in the US and the price of feed corn adjusts severely. Regardless of the blender’s subsidy, they will be locking up ethanol plants by the score if there is $10-$15/bu corn. They will also be foreclosing on feedlots and poultry farms, but in the end people have to eat and they don’t have to burn ethanol.

    On more of a solution thought stream: Focusing on lowering the fossil fuel inputs of agriculture in general would do society a great deal of good. I believe that compressed gas fuels and batteries have a strong potential in powering farm equipment that is heavy and generally only moves 5-6 mph. If you can run a submarine on batteries, you can run a 30 ton 150kW tractor on batteries (and charge those batteries with renewable electricity). You can also run that tractor on biomass gasification and anaerobic digestion gases. Weight and tank size aren’t really an issue.

    NH3 from renewable sources rather than NG.

    Back on the ethanol topic: Vacuum distillation isn’t cost effective with current NG prices, but it would be a solution to lowering NG inputs in ethanol distillation and a renewable powered system for vacuum distillation would be possible.

  3. In the second last paragraph, did you meant diesel not natural gas on the last line?

    Fixed. Thanks.

    Right now I am studying this story on Virent:

    Taking On Congress’ Favorite Biofuel

    Pretty interesting tale of why subsidizing specific fuels is a horrible idea. Virent is fighting to make sure they aren’t left out of the narrowly defined mix of who does get the subsidies.

  4. A premonition just crept out of my 50% asleep brain:

    The idea of ethanol accomplishing something on the “War on Terror” will come abruptly to a halt when some disgruntled bankrupt chicken farmer parks a truckload of ANFO at the local ethanol plant.

  5. Well the other thing that makes it less interesting is that total petroleum imports for 2006 were something like $216 billion dollars. Even $7 billion is a rounding error on that.

    So, while I strongly dislike energy subsidies, and would like to see them eliminated … maybe the 7/216 ratio is the reason the mainstream doesn’t really get excited.

    On the other hand, food inflation (including the corn ethanol effect) might attract broader attention.

  6. Robert – you have shown your true colors. You are an ethanol denier. The debate on ethanol is over.

    How dare you question the authority of Dr. Wang; Argonne Labs; Robert Zubrin; most of the agricultural scientists at universities in Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, Illinois, and the farm lobby in congress. Besides, it matters not what you think. The scientific consensus and our politicians have spoken on ethanol. The benefits of corn ethanol are now a scientific and a political fact. For we now know that scientists are are NEVER wrong. Particularly not on something so trivial as to calculate an overall energy balance on ethanol production. It isn’t as if they are trying to forecast something REALLY difficult like the weather.

    You are a knuckle-dragging neocon, industry hack, fool for your ethanol denial.

    Since you now work in the plastic wood business, by your own rules you should leave comments on farming and ethanol up to the real experts who know what they are doing. Experts (read not you) – the folks in the environmental science and agricultural economics departments. Those people who can suspend the laws of thermodynamics and significant digits in their data collection – because they weren’t required to take those courses to get their PHDs.

  7. If you are hungry, and you had the choice between betting your survival on a Ph.D in Agriculture or a successful lifelong farmer with a grade 7 education… it’s difficult to eat a dissertation. 🙂

  8. Unfortunately for us, while we were slaving away in Transport Phenomena 2 (BSL that cursed red book still sits on the shelf mocking me!) Our friends over in the environmental sciences department were taking graduate level courses watching videos of Captain Planet learning how big corporations are destroying the world. Now they teach at universities or work at national labs and write op eds about how big corporations are destroying the world and how stupid anyone who disagrees with them must be. They are really cool cause they get to hang out with celebrities and sometimes appear on TV. Where they get to tell lots of people how stupid those who disagree with them are.

  9. Bob – I would trade you about 100 envirnomental scientists for one farmer.

    If Michael Wang wanted to do a useful experiment we would give him a 1000 acres to farm, all the necessary farm and distillation equipment to make corn ethanol. Then we’d erect a 50′ fence around the property and tell him to come out in 5 years with all the ethanol he has produced.

  10. Note to Bob R:

    You know, bin Laden was more successful than he could have dreamed.

    In response to a single successful act by a flimsy grup of punk-terrorists, we are destroying our farmland, skyrocketing our crop and food prices, and spending $1 trillion on that little hellhole of a country Iraq.
    Moreover, we are evidently institutionalizing these self-inflicted wounds, so that they are permanent features of our economy.

    Even the Russkies never got us to self-immolate like this.

  11. > For we now know that scientists are
    > are NEVER wrong.

    A brief aside (I realize it was a satirical post).

    I think we often forget that while scientists can debate the facts and science, they are often terrible at translating the fact-based observations to policy.

    Fundamentally Ethanol production, consumption, and subsidization is a policy conversation, regardless of the science that says the EROEI is greater than, less than, or equal to 1.

    Consider, for a moment, the policy which says we should subsidize ethanol when the EROEI is less than 1.

    A dollar spent on foreign oil will support jobs in another country. It will contribute to our trade deficit. It might have national security implications.

    A dollar spent on ethanol creates jobs in the country that are not easily outsourced.

    It might convert allow us to convert domestic energy (natural gas) to an energy form that is largely imported (oil) without spending large amounts of money to re-tool the American automobile fleet.

    All of the arguments pro and con to this are policy arguments, not scientific arguments.

    I don’t think we can reduce policy decisions to a simple “EROEI > 1 keep, < 1 eliminate". But nor can we claim what isn’t. That ethanol production today is anything but an indirect subsidy to various parts of the country. Mike

  12. Out here in California we’ve converted our bus fleet, most taxis, and an increasing number of medium size trucks (like garbage trucks) to CNG.

    Not all of our policies are that smart, but that seems (increasingly) like a good call.

  13. Local CNG/NGV(Natural Gas Vehicles):

    SaskEnergy has a CNG refueling station here for more than a decade, but because there isn’t a wide infrastructure there has only been local fleet traffic using it.

    My dad has an old Lincoln Mark IV sitting out back of the farm with a 460cid engine. I should spend the summer building a 300hp CNG tractor with it. My middle son turned 15 today, it sounds like a fun summer project.

  14. Robert,
    Seems like you (of all people) should have a better handle on this:
    The BTU value of a barrel of ethanol is just over half that of a barrel of oil. Say 1 barrel of ethanol is equal to about 0.55 barrels of oil. &
    One gallon [of ethanol] contains 76,000 BTUs
    I have always used the number 1 barrel of ethanol is equal to about 0.67 (2/3rds) barrels of oil. A closer look reveals that that number was actually based on gasoline @ 115,000 BTU/gal.

    Crude would be ~110,000 BTU/gal, right? That means ethanol is more like 70% barrel/barrel.

    Not that I disagree with any of your conclusions. Listening to the pro-ethanol (and particularly their selective use of “science”) can be quite entertaining. I believe the wheels are coming off, ever so slowly…

  15. Crude would be ~110,000 BTU/gal, right? That means ethanol is more like 70% barrel/barrel.

    No, crude has a much higher overall BTU content than does gasoline, because those heavier components – diesel, fuel oil, etc. have a much higher BTU value than gasoline. A barrel of oil is typically given to be 5.8 to 6 million BTUs, about 140,000 BTUs/gal. And ethanol is about 55% of that.

  16. Robert,
    You may well be right – can’t say this is close to my field of expertise. And using ancient units makes me want to scream.

    Now that I have that off my chest: would it make more sense to use a mass based system? You know BTU/lb (kJ/kg) or something in that regard. A volume based system tends to get distorted by density differences (I always thought this was where the refiner’s gain and the associated confusion, came into play). If I have the numbers straight (this time), much of the difference between crude and gasoline has to do with the density difference.

  17. Right now I am studying this story on Virent: Taking On Congress’ Favorite Biofuel

    Pretty interesting tale of why subsidizing specific fuels is a horrible idea. Virent is fighting to make sure they aren’t left out of the narrowly defined mix of who does get the subsidies.
    Sickening! These guys make a better fuel, probably at a better efficiency and they get locked out because your wise elected officials (more precisely, the lobbyists who control them) know best.

    Robert, you (or somebody like you) need to write a commentary on what a good energy policy should look like, since nobody in Washington DC seems to have an idea. Can probably borrow ideas from California, where at least they calculate the effect on greenhouse gas emissions, before they mandate.

    Note how distorted the existing law is: biodiesel made from virgin oils (read: food) gets twice the subsidy that biodiesel made form recycled grease (harder to do, I believe) gets.

  18. Rant off. I have recently become embroiled in a similar debunking by a couple of university researchers. They wrote an article that said certain technologies were egregious emitters of greenhouse gases. I pointed out that the sources of their data were primarily environmental science journals and papers written specifically to oppose certain projects, and were just factually wrong. Their response was immediately ad hominem, and rather than thank me for providing better data sources, they called me stupid and an industry lackey.

    It appears the facts got in the way of the science-wrapped political statement they wanted to make.

  19. It appears the facts got in the way of the science-wrapped political statement they wanted to make.
    The problem with environmental science is that we understand so little of a complex subject. Even some apparently obvious improvement projects (MTBE) can go seriously belly-up. Who knew all those tanks were leaking?

    Keep up the good fight, King. You never know when the seeds of logic may find fertile soil.

  20. A barrel of oil is typically given to be 5.8 to 6 million BTUs, about 140,000 BTUs/gal. And ethanol is about 55% of that.

    Ethanol directly displaces refined fuels. Crude oil delivers around 120,000 BTUs per gallon of refined fuel, so I’d use 0.65 instead of 0.55 for displacement calculations.

    Your 15,200 BTUs of diesel per gallon of ethanol is about twice what I’ve seen in studies, which run about 3500-4000 BTU/gal for each farming and transport.

    The POET plant conversion in Iowa claims dramatically reduced fossil fuel inputs. If they deliver it’ll change the numbers quite a bit. Even with good practices, though, corn ethanol can never be more than a small contributor. If we want to slash the $440b/year we now spend importing oil we have to go electric.

  21. Optimist – MTBE is a good example of same illogic at work. The problem got fixed in 1999-2000 when new regulations for underground storage tanks went into effect and have stopped ground water contamination. But what does congress do? Essentially bans MTBE. The industry wanted legislation that shielded them from product liability suits for producing a ‘faulty product’ that congress mandated. The MTBE ban pleased two sets of constituents: ethanol lobbyists and trial lawyers.

    The same thing is happening over the Foreign Intellegence Security Act. Telcos want protection from tort lawyers for complying with a legal request from the Feds.

  22. I am a retired engineer, formally in High tech for 34 years. Time and time again new ideas would come up and invariably other well-meaning intelligent engineers would debunk those ideas. Some of us in management would not take the risk of trying to implement those ideas.

    We always needed a Champion. This Champion was a scientist or engineer that was willing to risk their career and reputation to promote a new idea. The American tradition of Trial and Error (shot gunning) gave us the fastest rise in technology in history with the debunkers being pushed aside.

    I consider Zubrin a Champion. I won’t edify him with a title like hero. However, he has now put his reputation at risk. Some Calcs are wrong; some assumptions are off a bit

    But That Is Not Important

    What is important is: He is DOING something! Other than attempting to debunk an idea what action has anyone of us performed to lower gas prices? Personally, I am working harder now than anytime in my career…

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