More Ethanol Critics Emerge

I am in the process of writing a pro-ethanol story (no, that’s not a typo). However, before I do, I want to highlight a pair of anti-ethanol articles that were just published. Thanks to Robert Schwartz for bringing these to my attention. The first article echoes many of the arguments I have made here on E85, and the second article discusses arguments I have made regarding Brazil’s “miracle”. It warms my heart to see that these arguments are picking up steam.

The first comes from Car and Driver, and is entitled Tech Stuff: Ethanol Promises. The article opens by explaining that, like it or not, ethanol is going to increase its market share as a result of government mandates:

The 551-page Energy Policy Act of 2005, signed last August, includes many sops to a blur of special interests, but one single provision rang the bell for automakers, greenies, and farmers, and for a broad coalition of ordinary motorists who were hoping for something, anything, to bring down gasoline prices; starting in 2006, the average gallon of “gas” will contain 2.78-percent ethanol.

Congress has made to the petroleum industry an offer it can’t refuse. It’s called a mandate. And it’s a mandate that keeps on giving, at least to the farm states, as it ratchets up the ethanol quota, nearly doubling it over the next six years — from 4.0-billion gallons in 2006 to 7.5-billion in 2012.

The article goes on to examine a number of ethanol claims. On ethanol as an oxygenate:

With a bare-faced mandate for ethanol in place, the previous sham, the oxygenate requirement, is hereby deleted. MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether) was the first choice of oxygenates, but since it contributed to ground-water contamination, ethanol became the fallback. However, feedback-fuel-metering systems, which self-adjust to operate at a fixed mixture regardless of fuel composition, became the norm roughly 20 years ago. As a result, the benefits of the oxygenate rule have decreased as newer vehicles’ fuel systems have replaced the older, more primitive ones. Today, as any engine engineer will testify, the rule has virtually no pollution benefit and has become nothing more than a backdoor mandate for the ethanol industry and corn farmers.

On the potential for ethanol to reduce dependence on fossil fuels:

Not in our lifetimes. In 2004, the U.S. consumed 100 “quads” (quadrillion BTUs) of energy. Of that, 86 quads were from fossil fuels. And of that, 40 quads were petroleum. About 18 of those petroleum quads were refined into gasoline. If we continue to use gasoline at no more than the 2004 rate — a fair assumption if prices stay high — the ethanol mandate by 2012 will stretch those 18 quads of gasoline with five percent by volume of ethanol, or 0.6 quad, give or take due to rounding. Remembering that we use 86 quads of fossil fuels, ethanol would displace a mere 0.7 percent of that.

Hmm. Where have I heard this argument before? The article continues to hammer that point home:

A recent study published by the University of California Berkeley looks at six different ethanol studies, brings the assumptions up to date, and makes other adjustments the authors think are appropriate. It concludes that only 5 to 26 percent of the energy in today’s corn-based ethanol is “new.” The other 74-to-95 percent represents the recycling of fossil-fuel energy to produce ethanol.
Even if we accept the most favorable assumption, that 26 percent of its energy is new, that represents only about 0.16 quad. Of the 18 original petroleum quads that went into gasoline, that means ethanol would comprise less than one percent. And compared with the total of 86 quads of fossil-fuel energy used in America, ethanol would replace less than two-tenths of one percent.

On the potential for ethanol to cut oil imports:

If we assume that the ethanol in gasoline in 2012 is used entirely to displace imports, and we again make the most favorable assumption that 26 percent of the energy is renewable, it would reduce imports by about 1.4 percent.

On ethanol’s ability to mitigate global warming:

Ideally, ethanol would be efficient enough as a fuel to power ethanol-production factories. But it’s nowhere close. With today’s technology, the carbon dioxide released by the fossil fuel used to produce ethanol towers over the amount recycled.

Switching from gasoline to ethanol would have an “ambiguous effect” on greenhouse gases, according to the Berkeley study, with reported values ranging from a 32-percent decrease to a 20-percent increase. It concluded that a 13-percent reduction was likely per BTU.

The U.S. Department of Energy was less optimistic, concluding that E85 produces only a four-percent reduction in carbon dioxide. In the near term, ethanol has no chance of mitigating global warming.

On ethanol subsidies:

Ethanol needs a mandate to find its way into our gas tanks for one simple reason. Made from corn as it is now, it costs more than gasoline.

Its true cost today is hidden by a broad blanket of agricultural subsidies, but we know the federal government puts up 51 cents per gallon. That alone will cost taxpayers more than $4.1 billion in 2012. And some states kick in an extra 10 cents, or 20, or more with credits, tax reductions, and other incentives.

On cellulosic ethanol:

If cellulosic ethanol were easy, it would already be on the road, because the government has been seriously funding research for about 30 years.

I believe cellulosic ethanol has great promise, but like they said, it hasn’t been easy. We can’t count on it as a silver bullet.

On E85 fuel efficiency:

We did a comparison test of two fuels, regular gasoline (87 octane) and E85 (100 to 105 octane). Our test vehicle was a flex-fuel 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe 4WD LT powered by a 5.3-liter V-8 hooked to a four-speed automatic transmission.

We tested acceleration using both fuels and our standard procedures, then we measured fuel economy at steady speeds of 30, 50, and 70 mph around a 2.5-mile oval test track, three runs at each speed that were averaged to produce the numbers you see in the accompanying charts. The fuel-economy results were calculated using the vehicle’s onboard computer.

We began the test with the Tahoe running on E85 fuel and later drove the SUV until its tank was as empty as we dared, and in that way we were able to flush the tank of almost all the ethanol. Then we refilled the tank with regular gasoline and repeated our procedures. All testing was done in two-wheel-drive mode. The results are shown here.

Differences in acceleration times were insignificant (although GM says E85 improves horsepower by as much as three percent). On the downside, the fuel economy on E85 was diminished more than 30 percent in two of the three tests, about what we expected. The EPA’s numbers suggest that fuel economy worsens by 28 percent on E85 compared with regular gas. On any Tahoe equipped with a 5.3-liter V-8, the E85 flex-fuel feature is a no-cost option, but running E85 reduces the driving range from roughly 390 miles a tank to about 290.

Again, I read a very similar argument recently. 🙂

On why E85 has been embraced by car makers:

With fewer than 600 stations selling E85 fuel in 37 states, why have GM, Ford, and DaimlerChrysler been cranking out these flex-fuel vehicles by the millions?

The answer is the mandatory Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. Federal law requires that the cars an automaker offers for sale average 27.5 mpg; light trucks must achieve 22.2 mpg. Failure to do so can result in substantial fines. However, relief is available to manufacturers that build E85 vehicles to encourage their production.

The irony here is that although E85 in fact gets poorer fuel economy than gasoline, for CAFE purposes, the government counts only the 15-percent gasoline content of E85. Not counting the ethanol, which is the other 85 percent, produces a seven-fold increase in E85 mpg. The official CAFE number for an E85 vehicle results from averaging the gas and the inflated E85 fuel-economy stats.

There is a lot more to the article. I encourage everyone to read the rest of it. It reiterates many points I have made here, and some that I haven’t (like the CAFÉ scam mentioned above).

The second article is much shorter. It is Alternative Fools: E85. After the opening bit, I was getting ready to write an e-mail to the author to set him straight. He began:

The United States has pledged to kick the oil habit before. But this time we mean it. Better yet, we have a solution that doesn’t require any of that furrin’ hybrid and diesel technology: E85. Produced from corn and other products grown in good old American soil, this 85 percent ethanol blend enables American-as-apple-pie small block V8s to burn less gasoline than a Prius. If every car, truck, and SUV were E85 now, why we could tell the Arabs to shove it!

Yes, I read it too fast to recognize the irony. But it became apparent soon enough:

While 186 million Brazilians burn the equivalent of about 10 billion gallons of gasoline each year (40 percent of it ethanol), 296 million Americans burn 150 billion gallons of gasoline each year (3 percent of it ethanol). In other words, if America really wants to be like Brazil, we should cut gas consumption use by 90 percent. Hint: not many Brazilians drive full-size SUVs. Otherwise, we’ll need ten times as much ethanol as Brazil to match the Brazilian fuel mix.

That was the major message in my article on Brazilian ethanol. We consume far too much for ethanol to be able to save us.

Virtually all vehicles on the road today can already burn ten percent ethanol, commonly known as “gasohol.” In other words, existing cars can probably use all of the ethanol we can produce through at least 2018. So why do we need new, E85-capable vehicles and new E85 pipelines and pumps in 2006? Well, they do seem to make Corn Belt congressmen and their constituents happy. They help GM deflect criticism. And, perhaps best of all, an E85 Tahoe gets a CAFE rating of 33.3 miles per gallon. You see, this rating is calculated based on the very shaky assumption that E85 (only 15 percent of which is gasoline) will be used half the time. As a result, GM can sell more V8-powered vehicles without incurring fines. Without this loophole, it would have to actually sell more fuel efficient vehicles if it didn’t want to pay up.

Again, I have been asking the same questions. This E85 push is silly. There is no way to produce enough ethanol to justify the rush to E85. This is about politics and pandering, not about responsible energy policy.

There is more to the article. Give it a read, while I finish up my pro-ethanol essay.


3 thoughts on “More Ethanol Critics Emerge”

  1. Robert,

    The Car and Driver article is one of the best written articles I’ve read explaining why ethanol isn’t the solution to our need for a liquid fuel.

    Should be required reading for our Corn Belt politicians.


    Gary Dikkers

  2. Gary,

    Agree 100%. It wasn’t too technical, so most people will find it very readable. Yet it hit all the important points. I was quite impressed.


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