Ethanol Debate Challenge

Suggested Debate Guidelines

My opinions on grain ethanol are clear from my previous essays. I object to grain ethanol because I feel it is a tremendous misallocation of time, money, and resources, while the benefits are marginal (and may even be harmful). I believe there are far better uses for our alternative energy dollar, and grain ethanol in the long run is a dead end (unless you use coal to make it, but there are probably better uses for coal). But it seems that I have some critics (see next section). So, I want to give them a chance to have their claims examined in a public forum.

I offer the following debate challenge to any ethanol advocate willing to take it on. We will have a written debate, to be hosted on this blog, and anywhere you would like to host it (provided it isn’t edited). I would propose 3 rounds, with a 1500 word maximum per round. Up to 1 week would be allowed between postings. I do not care anything about your credentials, but claims must be verifiable, and claims from the peer-reviewed scientific literature are preferred. Claims from obscure papers or anecdotal evidence will not be allowed.

I can think of several possible debate topics. My opponent may feel free to suggest their own, or to propose modifications in the guidelines I set forth in the previous paragraph. My suggestions for debate topics are:

1. The pros/cons of producing ethanol from grain.
2. Whether Brazil provides a useful example for U.S. energy policy.
3. The pros/cons of E85 as fuel.

I foresee the debate getting into energy balance issues, use of energy inputs into the ethanol process, the USDA studies on ethanol, ethanol subsidies, and alternatives to ethanol. If you are an advocate, and wish to test your mettle, let me know. There has been a lot of pro-ethanol press lately. I maintain that it is based largely on misinformation and exaggerations, and that these claims will break down upon investigation. So, Tom Daschle, Vinod Khosla, or Dan Rather, let’s see what those arguments look like when they are subject to cross-examination. Who knows? You might even convince me. I really do have an open mind. My objective is not to “beat you” in a debate. It is to educate people on both sides of this issue. If you are interested, leave a note in the comments after this post.

Addressing Some Critics

Rarely do I encounter an ethanol advocate who backs up their arguments with actual literature references. Most of them seem to fall into one of 3 (not necessarily mutually exclusive) categories: 1). The naïve idealist; 2). The ethanol investor; or 3). The person whose livelihood depends on ethanol. Their style of argumentation frequently consists of ad hominems, bombast, rhetoric, and made up facts. Their arguments are conspicuously light on references and verifiable facts. See my account of a previous exchange on another blog.

This time, I will highlight a recent exchange I had with an advocate over at The Oil Drum. Not unexpectedly, he refused my request to debate the issue. I think he had a problem with “claims must be verifiable”, as he made a lot of claims that did not withstand scrutiny.

I have endured the occasional potshots by an advocate who simply states “False”, or “You don’t know what you are talking about” in response to one of my arguments. This one started much the same way. The trouble started when a poster linked to this 2004 paper by David Blume. (1) Blume is an ethanol proponent, and author of the book “Alcohol Can Be a Gas”. After reading through his essay I concluded that some of his arguments simply were not credible. I gave my reasoning in this thread. I won’t get into all of the issues I had with Blume’s essay, as several are covered in the thread above. Below is a sampling:

David Blume: Let’s talk about the subsidies things first. Pretty much – if you take a look at oil, some of the timid evaluations of how much oil is subsidized show it to be subsidized at the rate of about $5 per gallon. The more complete analysis of subsidies for oil show it to be subsidized at about $15 per gallon.

Clearly, he is suggesting that the “real” subsidy for oil is $15/gallon. A $15 per gallon subsidy? So, a barrel of oil is subsidized at the rate of $630? We use about 3 billion barrels of oil in this country a year. So, he is suggesting that oil is subsidized at the rate of almost $2 trillion a year. This is approximately the size of the entire U.S. budget. (2) As far as I am concerned, his credibility is shot right there. The theme throughout is that he played pretty loose with the facts, exaggerating for effect as needed.

He commited the expected ad hom on David Pimentel (basically accusing him of fraud), and then makes the positively ludicrous claim that the energy return from corn is actually 2.94:1. Not even the USDA makes that claim, and they are counting the by-products as BTU outputs. This is another serious shot to his credibility.

In another essay, Blume is discussing ethanol production from sugar beets. (3) He says:

David Blume: There has been research that shows a 1:11 energy-balance ratio with ethanol. The USDA, definitely a conservative entity, found net positive output from ethanol of the order of 67 percent. When you compare that to the current numbers on petroleum extraction, which hover around the 1:1 ratio, we should wonder why we all aren’t growing sugar beets.”

I have certainly never seen anything like an 1:11 (I presume he is saying energy inputs:energy outputs) energy balance for sugar beets, so I am skeptical. I asked for a reference. But I do know a bit about the other 2 claims. The USDA is definitely NOT a conservative entity, but what Blume is implying here by suggesting that is that the energy return is even better than they say. The USDA is definitely pro-ethanol. But, I have shown that their positive energy return of 67 percent doesn’t withstand scrutiny. Interesting to note that Michael Wang, one of the co-authors of that report, doesn’t even use that number when giving presentations on ethanol. In a presentation he made just last fall, he said that to produce 1 MMBTU of ethanol requires a fossil fuel input of 0.74 MMBTU. That is an energy return of 1.35.

But, the most ludicrous claim of all is that the current numbers on petroleum extraction hover around 1:1. To Blume’s credit, he is only off by an order of magnitude. The real numbers on petroleum extraction are at least 10:1 for both the extraction step and the refining step, for an overall return of at least 5:1.

Blume also stated, in the same article dated June 8, 2005:

David Blume: “The choice is over; we hit peak oil production in November 2004. We’re currently operating in a functional oil peak, and alcohol is the only fuel to challenge gas.”

Of course that’s not true, is it? We didn’t hit peak in November 2004. You can see the government statistics here . (4) So there is another unwarranted claim. In summary, I didn’t feel like the guy had demonstrated a great deal of credibility on several items, so I indicated that I would be cautious accepting claims without pretty good references.

So, how did my opponent respond over at The Oil Drum? You can see some of the exchange with “fuelaholic” starting here. Blume himself responds with a series of Red Herrings, which for the most part I just ignored, instead challenging him to debate the issue. But it didn’t take long for my opponent to get nasty:

Fuelaholic: I think the Oil Drum folks need to research who you really are and who your allegiance is really to. Your paycheck, perhaps?

Isn’t it ironic that an anonymous poster would say that I need to be investigated to find out who I really am? If I had some ulterior motives, would I be more likely to adopt a pseudonym, or use my real name?

Fuelaholic: Like Pimentel, who refused to apply his numbers to organic farming methods, you focus on what is, not what can be.

Incidentally, fuelaholic frequently calls Pimentel an “oil company shill”. Speaking of which:

Fuelaholic: First of all, I’ve read plenty of biofuels comments here. They are not as clearly slanted, and poorly thought out as yours. And I haven’t agreed with a lot of them. But I know they aren’t oil company shills.

I guess if you can’t support your arguments with facts, insult your opponent or cast aspersions on their motives.

Fuelaholic: I repeat, you are the one with the made up facts, poor understanding of basics (energy input vs energy output) and you are simply parroting oil company complaints and then covering your butt to disguise it whenever you can.

This from someone who hasn’t once addressed any of my arguments. I invite the reader to check that out by reading the link at The Oil Drum.

Fuelaholic: You’re an insulting smug wannabe know it all.

Sticks and stones…. Again, the reader can see who is doing the insulting. Also, my work with ethanol is in the public record, and can be easily verified. There are a couple of links to the right you can use to see for yourself. I will also point out that some of the posters at The Oil Drum disagreed with his assessment after I posted the exchange there.

Fuelaholic: I think frankly instead of saying something like, this beet EROEI is bs, you should be saying, oh, really, I’d like to see that study. But you didn’t.

The funny was that I had asked him for the reference. My exact words were “Show me the reference”. You can see at the link above. This is the kind of sloppy argumentation that I find very annoying.

Fuelaholic: It’s clear you have no children, no concern for hope, no concern for anything other than your paycheck.

Wrong on all counts. These are the same sorts of “facts” he has used to support his ethanol arguments.

Fuelaholic: And you spend too much g-d time blogging. You have to be paid for it! End of story.

That’s it. “End of story”. Another “fact” from fuelaholic. Sadly, the advocates often can’t tell the difference between making a claim, and making a factual claim.

Nice guy, eh? His mistake is in taking this personally. He should be interested in getting to the truth of the matter. If someone can show me a viable method of significantly improving the energy balance for ethanol, I am not going to call you names and throw out a bunch of Red Herrings. I would be perfectly happy to embrace ethanol if I thought it made sense to do it. Right now, I think many other options are far better.


1. Blume, David, “Alternative Fuels – Promise and Perils”, 2004 Conference Proceedings of The Community Solution, 2004.

2. “United States Federal Budget”, Wikipedia 2006.

3. “Ethanol Dreams”, Metro Santa Cruz, June 8, 2005.

4. “World Oil Supply, 1997-Present”, Energy Information Administration. Accessed May 11, 2006.

16 thoughts on “Ethanol Debate Challenge”

  1. Excellent post. I hope you don’t feel compelled to defend yourself in this manner more than 1-2 times a year.

    And it’s pathetic when someone hiding behind a pseudonym challenges your authenticity.

    This from someone who despises the oil industry.

  2. I have a somewhat hard time taking this post seriously. You link to “Peak Oil Debunked” and isn’t Fuelaholic method of arguing exactly the same as JD’s?

    JD has made a long list of personal attacks on people like Richard Heinberg, Richard Duncan and William Stanton but doing little to counter their arguments.

    Right now you look to me like a hypocrite. When you get personally attacked its wrong but when your friend JD does the samething its OK.

  3. Right now you look to me like a hypocrite. When you get personally attacked its wrong but when your friend JD does the samething its OK.

    Just because I link to a site does not mean I am in complete agreement with everything on that site. You can probably find personal attacks at several of the sites I link to. But for the record, I don’t ever agree with ad hominem arguments. They add nothing to the debate.

    I link to Peak Oil Debunked because I think it offers a good balance to many of the more gloomy predictions given by the other side. I link to The Oil Drum because if offers a variety of opinions on both sides of the issue. I respect the reader’s ability to read through competing claims and figure out which ones sound credible. It doesn’t mean I am necessarily endorsing one position over another.


  4. Looks like ‘Stryker’ has picked up your gauntlet:

    Thanks for the heads up. I have responded, so we will see if he comes through. From what I have seen from him in the past, supporting his arguments will be a bit of a problem. But I will certainly give him a chance to do so.


  5. I offer the following debate challenge to any ethanol advocate willing to take it on. We will have a written debate, to be hosted on this blog, and anywhere you would like to host it (provided it isn’t edited).


    I doubt you’ll have many takers. I issued a similar challenge several months ago to several ethanol lobbyists I was exchanging e-mail with. Their response to the challenge was to set their e-mail programs to reject messages from me. And the blog at banned me from commenting, even after they said, “Bring it on.” I guess I brought on too much for them.

    The first question I always ask someone from the ethanol lobby is: “If ethanol production really returns more energy than it consumes, please explain why corn farmers and corn-to-ethanol plants use fossil fuels as their source of energy instead of ethanol?”

    The only two answers I’ve ever received are: “If we did that, we wouldn’t have any ethanol left to sell.” and “Ethanol costs too much to burn in an ethanol plant.”

    End of debate.


    Gary Dikkers

  6. Robert Rapier’s “Ethanol Debate Challenge”
    I would like to participate a little in this forum not so much for the challenge but for the opportunity of educating people who are concerned for the energy crisis and are badly hurt at the pump. Knowledge may avoid them to be misled by politicians and special interest groups. 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. My participation will be limited to debates conducted in a civilized manner (no insulting or taking it personally) and be characterized by objective criticism. I wish to add, I too am a chemical engineer and a chemist.

    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. There is a natural conservation effect that takes place in times of crisis. People in this case tend to buy smaller and more efficient cars. In cities with large concentrations, such as New York or Chicago, public transportation is the best solution. But in spread cities as Los Angeles, suburbs and rural areas, our transportation relays on personal vehicles, not to mention for our leisure. It is our way of life. A drastic reduction in the use of personal vehicles would also affect our economy. A lot of people would be out of jobs. Overall, it would imply large sacrifices. In other words, the cure is worse than the disease.

    During the first crisis of 1970’s, created by the oil cartel, there were long lines at the pump, particularly in California. I conceived then an idea to improve the fuel efficiency, but I did not have time to work on it. I was too busy trying to fill the vacuum created by the oil unavailability. I recovered spent or contaminated solvents and even made methyl acetate by a continuous process. The first crisis was of relatively short duration; it was the first showdown of the cartel countries against the Western World. Now the rule has changed: spiraling prices is the new rule, and the big oil companies have joined the game. From my student days, I was fascinated with oil for its many applications in many branches of industry, plastics, pharmaceuticals, solvents, etc., and considered a shame to burn it in fuels. But now I consider it even more shameful the fact that we depend on the oil found in rogue countries.

    My interest in ethanol is only peripheral. Now that I am retired, I am working on developing my original idea: special additives that promote the shifting of the reaction equilibrium towards mechanical work at the expense of heat in engines using ethanol/gasoline blends.
    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). But I look at it in a different way. Farm lobbying is a powerful force that in this present crisis, with the mounting public rage, may counteract to some extent what I consider the most powerful force: the big oil companies. We have made some progress. 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. Research is being conducted to use cheaper starting materials. I found interesting the process under research called the Veridium bioreactor technology whereas a special strain of algae can produce a biomass containing 94% starch as opposed to 63% contained in corn, utilizing in the process the carbon dioxide given off by the ethanol-producing facilities. The interesting part is their claim: this biomass can be produced at a much faster rate than plants in less the surface area required for crops. In the present crisis, other alternatives are actively sought. Ethanol, however, offers the most practical approach. The other alternatives, economically priced hybrid cars, hydrogen fuel cells, etc. are in the more distant future. All these, however, including the substitution of gasoline for ethanol take time. But we need a solution now, not years from now. 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. 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. The farmers are enjoying a windfall of profits. They too oppose competition. The way out, a little simplistic perhaps, is to keep these two forces at bay. As I said before, tax oil after a certain import level and give tax breaks on the amount of ethanol incorporated in the fuel. As for the farmers, they are receiving a subsidy for the amount of corn used for ethanol. They should receive assurance that the amount of ethanol imported is only what they cannot produce—the more they produce the less we import. Once we develop other alternative crops cheaper than corn, they will need to switch. Grain ethanol is definitely not the most efficient process, except for moonshine. No other process is more energy efficient than sugar. Perhaps, we should grow sugar cane in Florida, Louisiana, some parts of Texas, and Hawaii. We cannot grow much but it may become a contributing factor. Another possibility is beet sugar. We cannot compete with the cheap labor in Brazil, but better technology may give us a hedge. Still, we may not compete with the price of Brazilian ethanol, but it is better to contribute to sustain the labor force in a friendly country than sustain the finance of rogue states. 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.
    I know no other alternatives for ethanol; better perhaps, but not as commercially readily available as ethanol. Eventually, ethanol will be faced out but I don’t think this will happen for many years to come.

    As for E85, my first reaction is: if we still cannot go national with E10, let alone E85. But that is not the question. E10 will not make us energy independent. But E85 would. E100 would be even better in this respect, but fuel efficiency is better with E85. I don’t consider a 15% gasoline consumption oil dependency. We can get this and more outside the oil cartel. The idea behind this is to create the necessary infrastructure for E85. As I said before, we can import the necessary alcohol we still cannot produce. 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. The catalytic process from hydrogen and carbon monoxide may offer more economical possibility than that depending on natural gas hydrocarbons. Also, methanol is even less efficient than ethanol. But that is another matter of discussion, from which I prefer to stay out, since I would be biased. If I were involved in other energy projects that do not include alcohols, I would feel biased and stay completely out of this discussion.

  7. Amingenuity,

    With your permission, I will format that up and give your post its own blog entry. I will leave it up permanently, but it will be a few days before I respond.

    I agree with many of your points, (maybe most of your points), so I will only respond to specific points. Let me know if this is acceptable. You may suggest a title if you wish, or I will come up with one.



  8. “Ethanol Debate Challenge”
    By all means, do what you think best. I must confess, I am not too conversant with computers (I wish I were ten years old again).
    On my first blog I used my name: joseph miglietta (60 minutes). The second time, I could not find my blogger account and I made a new one using display name “amingenuity.”

  9. Hey Robert, I see you’re well on your way regarding the debate.
    I see no sign of Stryker, or fuelaholic for that matter. They must not have much to say.

    In response to Robert Schwartz’s suggestion regarding the now widely-panned “ERG Biofuel Analysis Meta-Model”, a feeble 3 page long report on a student science project conducted at UCBerkeley that even the USDA does not take the published results of seriously. Their methodology and conclusions are both fundamentally flawed, the report has not been peer reviewed, and onstead of actually conducting research they simple massaged cherry-picked thirdhand data provided by industry shill publications such as “Cellolosic”, treating is as scientific fact.
    For example, according to them, the EROEI of gasoline is negative! Negative!!
    Someone should inform the oil companies that they are wasting valuable energy getting that crude oil out of the ground. Sheesh!

  10. fallout11: I did not endorse the Berkley paper, I just said that Mr. Rapier might wish to look at it.

    However, I don’t think a paper published in Science, is a “student science project.” Furthermore, if you read the paper and review the supporting data, you will find that they do not make a strong case for ethanol. Indeed if you average their net energy returned figures, you will see that they are within the margin of the energy attributted to by-products. I think they indicated an average eroei of 1.2, which is a long way from encouraging.

    Another article that I would like to add to the inbox is:

    Ethanol: A Tragedy in 3 Acts

  11. Mr. Schwartz, I appologize if I seem to have been antagonistic towards you in any way, that was not my intention. I know that you did not have anything to do with the EBAMM paper, and am sorry if I seemed somewhat riled up about it.

    “Science” magazine will publish almost anything these days, often of dubious quality or even erroneous nature, and has issued little-publicized retractions concerning in the past. Here are multiple examples:

    The problem is that “Science” no longer attempts to independently verify or research most of the material they publish, something they once did, instead taking everything at face value, and as a result has ceased to be a reviewed or meaningful publication within the scientific community as a whole.
    It has become what “Popular Science” magazine is, a source for sensationalist “latest discovery!” bosh.

    Thank you very much for pointing out the BusinessWeek article, it is one I have not yet seen.

  12. The net energy value (NEV) of producing ethanol varies widely depending on where it is made, and the overall number is debatable. The USDA optimistically places ethanol’s NEV at small 1.34 while others calculate a net energy loss. However, regardless of who is right, ethanol will never come close to meeting the efficiency and former abundance of fossil fuels. Ethanol plants are powered by natural gas; farm machinery runs on diesel fuel or gasoline; nitrogen fertilizers are produced from natural gas; pesticides and herbicides are produced using oil; and seeds, chemicals, crops, tools, and the final product, are all transported by trucks, which run on diesel.

    Obviously, food production is similarly dependent on fossil fuels. Every calorie of food consumed in the United States usually takes somewhere between four and several hundred calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce. This is an unsustainable trend that will be discontinued as oil production goes into decline. For this reason, putting ethanol production in competition with food production for the world’s farming resources is a very dangerous idea.

    Some have mentioned Brazil, which in order to meet increasing energy demands is growing more sugar for fuel and less for food, resulting in a 98% increase in world-wide sugar prices just in the past year. The same thing is beginning to happen in the United States, and if this trend in ethanol/food production continues, it will permanently lock energy and food prices together in an unstoppable upward spiral.

    The first step to beating the big bad oil giants is to become less energy-dependent. Until a plan is on the table for lowering demand to a sustainable amount, supply-side solutions, such as growing ethanol, will only create more problems for the future.

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