Now That’s an About Face!

It’s been almost two years now that 60 Minutes did a special on ethanol, in which Dan Rather was just bubbly with enthusiasm. He had as a guest Berkeley Professor Dan Kammen, who heads up Berkeley’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL). (I frequently see visitors from RAEL showing up on my site meter). Anyway, Professor Kammen talked up the virtues of ethanol with Dan Rather, and also spoke very positively on ethanol in this article:

Ethanol can replace gasoline with significant energy savings, comparable impact on greenhouse gases

Boy, that takes me back. You have to love the appeal to authority:

Knowledgeable venture capitalists already are putting money behind ethanol and cellulosic technology, as witnessed by recent investments by Microsoft Corp. chairman Bill Gates and strong interest by Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla.

How did those investments pan out, fellows? Oh, yeah. But I digress. A couple of Professor Kammen’s Berkeley colleagues, Alex Farrell and Michael O’Hare, also featured in the above report. Well, it seems that they have all gotten religion, as evidenced by a story in today’s WSJ Energy Roundup:

More Bad News for Ethanol

Academics tasked with plotting California’s transition to a low-carbon fuel have delivered more bad news: Ethanol appears to come with a higher greenhouse-gas price tag than previously thought — higher, indeed, than fossil fuel.

The University of California at Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center told the California Air Resources Board that ethanol could be twice as bad as gasoline, from a carbon-emissions point of view. How? Basically by turning land now covered with trees, grass, and other natural “carbon sinks” into farmland for corn and other crops used for ethanol.

“Simply said, ethanol production today using U.S. corn contributes to the conversion of grasslands and rainforest to agriculture, causing very large GHG emissions,” wrote Berkeley profs Alex Farrell and Michael O’Hare in a January 12 memo to California regulators. “Even if only a small fraction of the emissions calculated in this crude way [through land use change] are added to estimates of direct emissions for corn ethanol, total emissions for corn ethanol are higher than for fossil fuels.”

Professor Kammen is listed as a co-author on the report, which appears to be an enormous position shift for him. Maybe his Berkeley colleague Tad Patzek finally showed him the light. Or maybe those many visits they made here slowly won them over.

Of course you had to know that some would immediately reach for the ad hom:

I would like to know who are backers of The University of California at Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center? Exxon, Shell and Chevron?

Ah, yes. Good times. On the scientific front, this battle is being won. If we could only start convincing those darn lawmakers.

17 thoughts on “Now That’s an About Face!”

  1. NICE!

    The California lawmakers are getting this, showing that their approach (calculating the greenhouse gas emissions before commanding all and sundry to make the switch) makes a lot of sense. Now if only we could get the noisebags in Washington DC to follow the same scientific approach, instead of hiding behind a Bush.

    Viva Schwarzenegger!

  2. It seems the public is catching on about corn ethanol. I hope the baby is not thrown out with the bathwater, and all biofuels dumped due to one bad idea.
    Anyway, biofuels may have a better future than thought: Higher CO2 levels are boosting crop production! Some guess by about 30 percent. Not bad.
    Biodiesel appears promising. Jatropha pantations may actually work out. Certainly at $60 a barrel.
    As a nation, we are stumblefooting our way forward. It would be nice if we had some leadership. But, eventually the markets will dictate the right solutions. If oil stays expensive, alternatives will appear like magic.
    but, I am begnning to doubt we will see $100 oil again in our lifetimes (for anybody old enough to be bald). Demand is just not there at these prices.
    And I do not think we should completely rule out subsidizing biofuels. We are spending $400 billion a year in Iraq right now, and some say we will have to stay on there for another 10 years, or maybe permanently. McCain says that.
    I would rather pull out of Iraq, and spend $50 billion a year on US farmers. At least they seem like nice guys, as opposed to our “friends” in Iraq, who sometimes send our soldiers into booby traps.

  3. the law makers listen to different drummers–BIG MONEY. POLS aren’t influenced by data, argument, logic or other pertinent factors which would influence the populace unless such activity leads to votes[their lifeblood to their personal sustainability].

    figure out how to leverage the populace vote to out influence/out muscle BIG MONEY[regardless of MONEY’S ulterior motives] and you might successfully alter political focus/attention as yuo hope.

    then quickly patent/copyright the technique, ’cause it’s sorely needed.


  4. Fran,
    That still does not explain why California gets it right, but the US as a country gets it wrong.

    Seems like the main difference between California and the US is the quality of the leadership. Hence my comment about Schwarzenegger. BTW, am I even crediting the right guy?

    Any other explanation?

  5. Well you have to realize Farrell already had the concept that Land Use was being largely ignored.

    Good to see he followed up on quantifying it.


    Personally, my only interaction with Farrell is when he made some editting comments for this chart I designed that was recently published by an influencial policy report.

    From this,
    To this:

    Wonder if that did anything 😛

  6. I think California got it right on ethanol this time around, partly because not much corn is grown in California, so either corn or the ethanol has to be trucked in. So politically, there’s not much benefit of corn ethanol to California.

    Also, California has a smog problem and past experience shows that ethanol causes more smog problems than gasoline, even if it’s just from spills at the pump.

    I doubt that higher greenhouse gas emissions from ethanol has anything to do with the position of California’s lawmakers this past year.

  7. Before you guys get too love-dovey with the CA government on all this.

    The California Air Resources Board decided to kick up the Ethanol requirement from 6% blend in all gasoline. Up to 10% in all gasoline.

    I don’t know if Farrell’s new findings have had any chance to factor in yet.

    But it certainly should, since the “Low Carbon Fuel Standard” is based off of a performance basis.

    If Corn Ethanol can’t cut it, then it might get axed.

  8. To Benny — and anyone else who likes to eat — who cares if the SIZE of the plants grows when it just means that they become less nutritious.

    There is serious concern that we could wipe out species at the base of the food chain through starvation, as they can’t obtain enough nourishment from hyperdeveloped but undernourishing plants grown in hyper-CO2 environment.

    See for the stories.


    see current dilemma r.e.calif vs EPA on auto tailpipe CO2 emission.

    you’re correct that calif state is in disconnect with FEDS. four of the strongest fed legislators[pelosi, boxer, feinstein, waxman–all calif reps– rolled over on the recent CAFE STDS legislation[passed unanimously by both fed houses]. then immediately criticized bushies for EPA rejection of calif epa exception request as if they had never known the obvious conflict. even though they are on record of supporting the governators position before hand.

    the calif fed reps are either incompetent, irresponsible, or influenced by other factors than the home state electorate desire. these reps could have dragged feet, stirred up a dependency fuss, or other termoil to make issue come to a head before the energy legislation was passed.

    but they didn’t!

    the records are full of this type legislative conflict.

    who do they represent?
    to what drummer do they march?

    this experience is not

    unique to calif.

  10. From what I read, there is no problem with nutrition and CO2 levels. We are getting higher crop yields. Nutrition is also a function of selective breeding.
    Select more nutritious varietis, and grow them big in higher CO2 environment.
    I sense some people just want to bash eveything, for pre-concieved ideas, both left and right.
    Maybe CO2 levels will be the death of us. But, in the meantime, crop yields are up.
    And, in the last 400,000, it is very common for the northern half of the planet to be buried under ice.
    I am just saying, throw off the ideological blinkers, and consider: Maybe rising CO2 levels are staving off an Ice Age, and maybe higher crop yields are one result.
    Grow peanust for protein, jatropha for fuel! And dance to salso music baby, becuz it is going to be hot!

  11. the calif fed reps are either incompetent, irresponsible, or influenced by other factors than the home state electorate desire.
    Feeling better? Why not tell us what you really think?

    These guys may or may not be as sinister as you portray them. I happen to think your are being unfair to them. The masterstroke of linking CAFE to CA’s CO2 regs is all White House political play. To suggest that the CA reps should have seen it coming is a bit much, IMHO.

    The bigger problems are the guys in the White House and the power of Big Ag in congress.

  12. ==To suggest that the CA reps should have seen it coming is a bit much, IMHO.==

    Not really.
    I saw it coming a mile away.

    That said, it still may be reachable, considering it doesn’t take an act of congress.

    And so far all the Staff of the EPA have proof that they all signed off on it.

    And the only one holding things up is an appointed head official.


    Although it would be correct to say though, that it should be enough of a stonewalling tactic to last until Bush gets out of office.

  13. Not really.
    I saw it coming a mile away.

    Good for you. Whatever.

    The point I was trying to make really had nothing to do with CA reps in Washington DC. Can’t say I am too impressed with them.

    It had more to do with the way the state went about reducing its CO2 emissions. Instead of the federal approach (obviously the feds aren’t concerned with CO2 just yet) of ye shall use X billion gallons of ethanol per year, CA tries to do things the scientific way (whoda thunka that?).

    For example: The Governor’s Executive Order directs the Secretary for Environmental Protection to coordinate the actions of the California Energy Commission (CEC), the California Air Resources Board (ARB), the University of California and other agencies to develop the protocols for measuring the “life-cycle carbon intensity” of transportation fuels. This analysis will become part of the State Implementation Plan for alternative fuels … Measurements, universities, experts… why are these things so foreign to Washington DC? Don’t say its that party over there, they are both guilty of trying to score easy political points w/o solving the problem.

    Among other things the scientific approach has lead California to limit the state funding for hydrogen production, because hydrogen proved to be less clean than proponents claim. Again, nobody could have seen that coming, other than any competent chemical engineer.

  14. benny, our being independent of petroleum would not mean we could ignore the ME.

    Do you have any understanding of why? If not, try reading this article.

    Now, as for Jatropha, it needs five years of intensive research before it can be made economically viable. The issues are productivity, toxicity, spread out riping times, and that its labor intensive.

    On CO2 levels, it’s still a trace gas that has varied throughout Earths existence, water vapor has a much bigger effect on the climate (and the climate models can’t even predict the past).

  15. ==On CO2 levels, it’s still a trace gas that has varied throughout Earths existence, water vapor has a much bigger effect on the climate (and the climate models can’t even predict the past).==

    I wouldn’t really give RoySpencer/JohnChristy that much weight though.

    First they started out “accidentally” flipping their troposphere trend into reverse to show cooling.

    Then they were publically and formally corrected on in the journal of Science.
    (Oops, we flipped out day-night cycle in reverse, and completely ignored satelite orbital path changes, unlike the other 2 major studies)

    Then Christy took part on a comprehensive report reiterating these findings.

    THEN Christy and Spencer went on “The Great Global Warming Swindle” where you can quote them saying in reference to the troposphere.

    “What we’ve found consistently, is that in a great part of the planet, that the bulk of the atmosphere is not warming as much as we see at the surface region.”

    And then you have where they are now, where they are trying to say that the troposphere in the Tropics only is cooling, and therefore global warming must not be happening. However they forgot to leave error bars in their study. And when they include them, they find that their trend that they were trying to rebuke falls in quite nicely. Oops!

    But in general, water vapor is a greenhouse gas, but it’s NOT a “long lived greenhouse gas”. It lasts in the troposphere for a couple hours to a couple days. And if the troposphere is too cold, any excess water condenses and rains out. Which means it doesn’t water vapor doesn’t accumulate in the troposphere.

  16. I drive a 1992 Subaru Legacy multi-port FI, non turbocharged.

    I get the same MPG mixing E-85 with regular pump gas at a ratio that yields very close to a 50/50 Ethanol/pump gas blend.

    All I did was add one gallon Ethanol more to the tank each week till I had the 50/50 mix.
    Changing the fuel filter after a few weeks might be necessary.

    I am saving about 40 cents a gallon, less than Supreme Unleaded with close to the same octane of Supreme. $2.80 a gallon is a lot nicer than $3.20 a gallon.

    This is more proof that many post 1987 cars can burn a 50/50 mix.

    We don’t need to be in the middle east at all.

    Since we need the huge military to secure safe transit of oil from the middle east to all points on the globe to benefit the trans national oil companies, I submit we would be better off cutting our military expenses to 10% of current, would make for hundreds of billions available to rebuild America, for America.

    Let someone else besides the US tax payer hide the true cost of gasoline, which is somewhere north of twelve dollars a gallon with income taxes included.

    Building distillation plants for every piston powered device to burn a 50/50 mix would cost about 70 Billion dollars. About 2 or 3 months worth of fighting in Iraq.

    Google in quotes “Ten sections per County” to read how we can run all US transportation without tying up any cropland in North America.

    Food vs. Fuel? Doesn’t have to be that way at all.

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