Government mandates and ethanol - a bad idea Posted by: McQ
on Thursday, April 24, 2008
Lester Brown (founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute) and Jonathan Lewis (climate specialist and lawyer with the Clean Air Task Force) succinctly lay out the reasons ethanol mandates are a bad idea - not that anyone in government will listen, especially during an election year:
It is now abundantly clear that food-to-fuel mandates are leading to increased environmental damage. First, producing ethanol requires huge amounts of energy — most of which comes from coal. Second, the production process creates a number of hazardous byproducts, and some production facilities are reportedly dumping these in local water sources.
Third, food-to-fuel mandates are helping drive up the price of agricultural staples, leading to significant changes in land use with major environmental harm. Here in the United States, farmers are pulling land out of the federal conservation program, threatening fragile habitats. Increased agricultural production also means increased fertilizer use. The National Academy of Sciences reported last month that meeting the congressional food-to-fuel mandate by 2022 would lead to a 10 to 19 percent increase in the size of the Gulf of Mexico's "dead zone" — an area so polluted by fertilizer runoff that no aquatic life can survive there.
Most troubling, though, is that the higher food prices caused in large part by food-to-fuel mandates create incentives for global deforestation, including in the Amazon basin. As Time magazine reported this month, huge swaths of forest are being cleared for agricultural development. The result is devastating: We lose an ecological treasure and critical habitat for endangered species, as well as the world's largest "carbon sink." And when the forests are cleared and the land plowed for farming, the carbon that had been sequestered in the plants and soil is released. Princeton scholar Tim Searchinger has modeled this impact and reports in Science magazine that the net impact of the food-to-fuel push will be an increase in global carbon emissions — and thus a catalyst for climate change.
Meanwhile, the mandates are not reducing our dependence on foreign oil. Last year, the United States burned about a quarter of its national corn supply as fuel — and this led to only a 1 percent reduction in the country's oil consumption.
My objections aren't to be found in the emmissions/climate change area as readers of this blog know. Instead I object to the government mandates and the unintended consequences they're having. And unlike its similarly poorly thought out lightbulb mandate (imagine the founders considering government reaching so far into our lives that it mandates our lighting source), the ethanol mandate is having a far reaching and negative effect in other areas such as the increasing price of food.
So pushing aside the "climate change" aspects of these mandates, look at the market effects they're having. Any number of people would like to lay off the rising prices in these commodities to speculation. And certainly, speculation has some hand in this, but it is being driven by the age old price mechanism based in scarcity. The mandates have created a second competing sphere for the same commodities. Instead of just food, we now have food and fuel after the same crops. The incentive to grow these commodities is driven by that competition.
Obviously the artificial demand created by the mandate is going to effect the price mechanism. That's guaranteed. And depending on how scarce the desired commodities are or become will decide on how high the pricing goes.
We're beginning to see that effect on world food prices, while, interestingly, ethanol is having little to no effect on fuel prices. You'll also note that alternative commodities are also seeing a rise in prices as they become more in demand because the crops wanted for fuel are at a price where alternatives for them are being sought by the market.
Ethanol mandates are something that needs to be seriously rethought. Europe is now, finally, having second thoughts. Our government needs to do the same, and do it rather quickly.
Ethanol may, at some point, have a role in reducing our dependence on oil. But, from everything I read, that would be best accomplished by celluosic ethanol, not ethanol made from food crops. Unfortunately, the technology for cellulosic ethanol hasn't been perfected and there isn't a single functioning cellulosic production facility to be found anywhere.
Until we do have that technology in production, my suggestion is we back off the present mandates completely. Let the technology for cellulosic ethanol develop into a viable source for the product. But what should be obvious to everyone by now is that using food for fuel is not only the wrong way to go, it's just a bad idea. And that goes for those types of government mandates as well.
I agree with you on this one McQ. I also think you’re right on principle: problems that get solved with governmental mandates are the equivalent to trying to kill flies with a machine gun. You might get the flies, but then you have new problems.
The further we get from issues involving foreign policy, or personal attacks on various politicians (which I dislike from the left as well as from the right), the more agreement I have with the bloggers and many posters here. Even on global warming, my disagreement is about acknowledging the strength of the evidence in favor (even while recognizing that there are contrary theories), but not so much on the policy recommendations.
At base, I distrust centralized power, and the modern state has seemed to continually increase the scope of centralized power. I see our foreign policy, the war in Iraq, and many actions taken in response to terrorism to be an expansion of centralized power, leading to massive deaths which I think people simply brush aside through abstract rationalization. To me, it seems like a lot of people here suddenly trust big government and government programs if it is the military, and lose the critical approach they take towards other government programs and activities. I’m not saying one can’t support various wars or foreign policy operations, I just think a strong sense of critical analysis of such choices is important given that warfare is the state at its most brutal and violent. Big government is big government.
How can you just lie to these people like that, Erb?
If you think that’s a lie, Billy, you are utterly clueless about where I’m coming from here. Distrust of centralized power is my fundamental starting point in looking at issues of politics and governance.
This proves to me Billy that you really don’t take the time to actually listen to what others say. A few exchanges and you think you’ve got them figured out, and you assign some kind of negative label. That’s what happens when instead of discourse you pursue ideological jihad.
"If you think that’s a lie, Billy, you are utterly clueless about where I’m coming from here."
Don’t piss up my leg and tell me it’s raining, punk.
"Distrust of centralized power is my fundamental starting point in looking at issues of politics and governance."
Bullsh!t. To begin with, you are constitutionally incapable of explicating what you’re yapping about. (For instance: the "power" to produce and the "power" to steal are all the same to you.) Beyond that, though, your first touchstone whenever you get the shakes is government.
"A few exchanges and you think you’ve got them figured out, and you assign some kind of negative label."
Again: when you moan about "labels", you are complaining about identification. I know exactly why you do that, you squishy little bastard. And I’ve read enough of you ("To taste the ocean requires but a single drop." — Solzhenitsyn, remarking on principles) over more than ten years to know everything I need to know about you. I can understand why that makes you nervy, but that doesn’t matter to me. You are what you are, even when you’re lying about it.
Billy, you’re out to lunch. My blog, my comments, and my position on most issues is informed by a real distrust of centralized power. You may think otherwise, but you are full of s**t. But live in your fantasy world, imagine opponents who don’t really exist, and tell yourself you’re fighting some noble cause. Because, frankly, your refusal to accept reality is causing you to get a bit flighty as you age.
Don, I was harshly critical of Clinton, especially on Kosovo. Government has gotten too centralized and powerful, and neither party wants to really change that.
All that money wasted on development of E85 vehicles.
There several misconceptions going on here
First ethanol use for fuel has primarily to do with its use as an additive. The government mandated the phasing in of an ’oxygenater’ additive to gasoline. There were two primary choices, ethanol and MTBE. Initially MTBE was the additive of choice in much of the country. However MTBE was detected in the groundwater in a few places. So localities (many States and some cities) started to ban MTBE. So not only was more an more additive required over the past decade, there has been a shift from MTBE to ethanol.
Ethanol was present anywhere from 6-10% as an additive. However another mandate was to unify the formulation and make everything with ethanol be 10%. This is known as E10. Sorry, I can’t find a good link for this last mandate.
Most regular gasoline is 10% ethanol. There are around 150,000-200,000 gas station in the US. Of those less than 1,000 sell E85. The actual alternative fuel.
if 100,000 station are selling E10, that is as if 10,000 station were selling pure ethanol. So in comparison we have 1,000 stations selling E85 (which is often really only one of several pumps) compared to 10,000 worth of pure ethanol.
So, for personal vehicles, ethanol in fuel as an additive is still much larger than ethanol as fuel.
All that money wasted on development of E85 vehicles.
Another misconception related to this statement.
In comparison to the effort to develop Hybrids or Diesels that meet US emissions requirements, there was a fraction of the development.
In many ways, ethanol as an additive in E10 is more caustic to engine components than pure gas or pure ethanol. So after all the effort to be able to tolerate E10, engine manufacturer realized they weren’t all that far from being able to tolerate a predominantly ethanol blend.
This gives rise to another problem and misconception about ethanol. E85 engines are primarily gasoline engines that can run ethanol. This means the engine isn’t really targeting E85. So it takes an efficiency hit. It requires more ethanol by volume than gas by volume to travel the same difference with current engines. If the engine was developed to run only E85 or better yet, E100 (100% ethanol) any deficit in energy/volume can be offset.
But the real issue for a consumer is $/mile not gallons/mile. If its cheaper to go from point a to point b with ethanol, ethanol should be the consumer’s choice. The worst consequence in terms of what a car is for E85 is that you need a bigger gas tank.
In fact that is something worth noting for the next misconception.
Flexfuel vehicles, in comparison to Hybrids and Diesels, are nearly identical to vehicles we have today for a cost thats in the range of a few hundred dollars more.
Hybrids and Diesel carry a cost premium that is going to improve in the case of Hybrids, slightly and not at all for Diesels.
Hybrids have everything a gas vehicle has, plus an expensive battery, plus special electronics to manage the power between the battery and the motors, and the motors themselves. Those things are made with either expensive rare earth metals/element or with expensive processes or both. Base diesel hardware has always been a bit more expensive than gas engines. They have to be to endure the heavy loading that happens in a diesel. However there is so much elaborate claptrap in terms of exhaust & filtration systems to meet emissions you could be looking right at a diesel engine and not even recognize it. Both of these are still in their early stages. For Hybrids, the markup can be somewhere between $4000-$8000. For diesels, the markup is easily $5000.
In contrast, ethanol vehicles are a possibility right now with almost cost or performance impact to users.
In contrast, ethanol vehicles are a possibility right now with almost no cost or performance impact to users.
This correction actually brings me to a third misconception about E85.
Hard Core Environmentalist hate ethanol as a fuel.
Yes you read that correctly.
Die hard environmentalists have always wanted to minimize Man’s footprint on the earth. The global warming alarmism isn’t their direct concern. Its a tool to achieve their core goal. For cars, its to get you out of them. They want to make cars more expensive or less fun so one day you’ll abandon them altogether. They have a vision (a fantasy really) of us all living in cities and using mass-transit.
They first started to flip on ethanol when they realized the vehicle manufacturer were quickly able to switch to E85 and sell cars at the same cost. -> unacceptable to environmentalists
The end user pretty much had the same car -> unacceptable
Then cellulosic ethanol made some breakthrough so that we are literally as close as 2 year to make it work. Cellulosic ethanol is projected to be way cheaper than corn-based ethanol and competitive with gasoline $3/gallon or even less taxes included. -> no increasing costs to consumer, unacceptable
If cellulosic ethanol pans out, it will stop rising gas prices. Because eventually everyone will simply switch if it did. But, environmentalist want gas to keep rising in cost. They want it to reach $4, $5 or $8. Successful ethanol from cellulose may slow or stop that.
The worst part is that it actually works in reducing C02 emissions compared to corn-based ethanol by a substantial amount. This means the government can no longer justify high taxes to reduce usage.
The proof Environmentalists turning on ethanol is in front of your eyes.
Uh oh - I agree with Scott. Help!
Erb is against it because the Left has turned against it as they catch up with the environmental front-liners.
Its funny. I was in an argument about ethanol with someone. They were very anti-global warming. However, they cut & paste a litany of articles talking down ethanol from a psuedo-science website that embraced global warming.
If the same hucksters selling global warming are criticizing ethanol, maybe people should question where they get their negative information about ethanol from. Maybe there is an agenda.
If cellulosic ethanol pans out, it will stop rising gas prices.
Yes, that’s now produced in Canada, I believe. That would be better than the current corn based production, which is heavily subsidized. Though I’m not sure what you mean by:
Erb is against it because the Left has turned against it as they catch up with the environmental front-liners.
I’m against government mandates, and in general skeptical of ethanol due to its impact on global food markets (when coming from corn or land otherwise used to produce foodstuffs). Sugar cane use in Brazil makes sense, and Brazil is heading towards virtually all flex car use. I’m not sure who the people are who hate cars and want to get you out of them — I’ve never known anyone like that. But I do know I love driving!
Erb bashing aside, there is a case to examine here.
Look at the energy. A gallon of gasoline contains about 125,000 BTUs; an gallon of ethanol, about 87,500. Whether you burn a mixture of gas & ethanol or 100% ethanol, you get less heat (power) per gallon. Either performance or mileage or both suffer.
Look at the production cost in energy. To refine a gallon of gasoline from crude oil, you expend the equivalent of 0.1 of a gallon of gas. To produce ethanol, you must buy seed, prepare a field, plant corn, fertilize it, harvest it, truck it to a distiller, distill ethanol and transport the ethanol in tankers. (Pipelines cannot presently carry ethanol.) Estimates of these cost vary from 0.75 to 1.5 gallons per gallon.
Look at the cost in food. We eat corn. Now it costs more, so we pay 25% more for corn than we did before the seminal event - the Iowa Caucus. Cattle and pigs also eat corn. Now we pay more for beef, milk, cheese and pork.
Look at the "environmental" impact. Ethanol and gasoline are both hydrocarbon fuels. Burning them produces CO2 and H2O - both green house gasses. CO, a toxic gas is also produced.
So, to get a less efficient fuel, we use more energy, drive up the cost of our food and have no environmental improvement at great cost. Only a government agency could have developed this plan.
I do believe in competition at the pump. And since domestic government regulation and an international oil cartel have killed the free production of oil & gas, the only competition left will be across technologies.
But to address the carbon issue:
The ratio of Hydrogen to carbon in hydrocarbon chains is almost 1:1
The ratio or Hydrogen to carbon in ethanol is 3:1
More of the energy content is from hydrogen oxidation in an ethanol reaction
Therefore, per energy released more carbon comes from gas than ethanol.
Ethanol can have another advantage. It comes from plants that pull their carbon from the atmosphere. They are carbon sinks. Now the corn-based process when you add back in carbon in the conversion process and fuel to produce corn you get ~10-20% reduction. When it comes from the proposed cellulosic processes, you get a net 80% reduction.
The cellulosic process also promises to do it much more efficiently approach gasoline energy return ratios.
But there’s two comments I have to make on those energy assessments.
As for the lower energy, because ethanol doesn’t burn like gas, it could be run in a diesel-like cycle which would give better heat to work efficiency closing up the gap.
Unfortunately, the technology for cellulosic ethanol hasn’t been perfected and there isn’t a single functioning cellulosic production facility to be found anywhere.
Correction: there isn’t a single large scale cellulosic production facility currently operational anywhere. There are plenty of small ones, and there’s one large one currently being built (as well as several others planned).
I’d correct stuff from the quoted material, but there’s no point. Let’s just say that author got some things wrong.