A Debate Proposal for the Ethanol Lobby - Let's Get It On

Bob Dinneen, President & CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association (the same association that claims displacement of 170 million barrels of oil with 64 million BOEs of ethanol) wrote to Rolling Stone to complain about Jeff Goodell's recent critical piece on ethanol:

Letter To The Editor: Response to "The Ethanol Scam"

In the letter, Dinneen took a shot at me, writing "As is to be expected, Mr. Goodell relied on the figures of an energy blogger for his facts." Goodell defended me in his response to Dinneen:

For a thorough clarification, check out oil industry engineer Robert Rapier's analysis. I know that Dinneen finds bloggers unsavory, but Rapier is among the most fair-minded and insightful critics of the energy industry I've come across.

And he pointed Dinneen to me for some answers. So, Bob Dinneen, this one's for you. Let's deconstruct the letter. Jumping past the all too predictable ad hominems:

Wow, I am having to jump pretty far. Farther than I thought, as the letter is laced with ad hominems. Four paragraphs into the letter, Dinneen is waving the flag and talking about "Mr. Goodell's Hugo Chavez." Was this really the RFA’s best effort? Actually, I want to jump down and address the claim that I was most certain would be made by ethanol proponents:

Yet another common misconception offered by ethanol novices is that ethanol is at best energy neutral, meaning it takes as much energy to produce as it yields. As is to be expected, Mr. Goodell relied on the figures of an energy blogger for his facts. Inconveniently for his arguments, the federal government has different figures. According to the Argonne National Laboratories, ethanol yields nearly 70% more energy that it took to produce. Conversely, refined gasoline contains 20% LESS energy that it took to produce.

Can you count the errors and misleading statements? First, "ethanol yields nearly 70% more energy that it took to produce". Then "gasoline contains 20% LESS energy that it took to produce." Are you comparing like to like, Mr. Dinneen? Of course you aren't. By your gasoline metric, ethanol also contains less energy than it took to produce. Why? Because you are counting the BTUs contained in the feed as an "input" to the gasoline process, but you are not counting the crude ethanol BTUs as an input to the ethanol process. You are not comparing like to like; you are comparing an efficiency to an energy return.

If I have some quantity of energy to invest ("invest" means to consume; not to take a ride through the process as the gasoline BTUs do) in energy production, will I end up with more energy if I invest that into gasoline production, or into ethanol production? The answer is gasoline production, by a wide margin. And I have demonstrated that numerous times, using the pro-ethanol USDA's own numbers. I repeat: I am use pro-ethanol sources for my analyses. So accuse me of bias if you wish, but don’t accuse me of using “different figures.” I am using the same data source you are. I just didn't accept the edited version of the numbers.

I wonder if Mr. Dinneen understands how the USDA paper (Wang at Argonne is a coauthor, hence Dinneen’s Argonne reference) arrived at this number? I am going to show you how they did, and cite the reports so you can check for yourself. I analyzed the reports in detail here, using USDA numbers to show that they engaged in a bit of creative accounting. You can read the analysis for yourself, but here's the executive summary.

In 2002, the USDA reported on the energy balance of corn ethanol, stating that the energy balance was 1.34 units of energy out for every unit in. As I showed, they performed a little accounting trick to get that, as the real number - when full BTU credit was taken for the animal feed co-products - was 1.27. Minor quibble, but it made me alert for more accounting tricks. And they came in a report released 2 years later.

In their 2004 report, the USDA acknowledged that they had grossly underestimated a number of energy inputs in the 2002 report. So, they corrected those numbers. But some energy inputs had gone down, and at the end of the day, the energy inputs/outputs in the 2004 report were about the same as in the 2002 report. Yet in the 2004 report, they reported that the energy ratio for ethanol in two short years had ballooned to an amazing 1.67, which is where Mr. Dinneen got his number. In light of this, it is not surprising that ethanol proponents cite amazing progress in improving ethanol's energy efficiency. After all, the government said it, so it must be true.

But let’s look at the raw numbers, shall we? Look at Tables 3 and 4 in the 2004 USDA report. I will just produce it for you so you can see for yourself:

Table 1: 2004 USDA Report Showing the Energy Return for Corn Ethanol at 1.06.

I know that's hard to read, but here's what it says. (You can always check out the original if you think I am pulling any funny business). The energy produced in a wet mill process is only 2% greater than the energy it took to produce the ethanol. And I would point out that things like topsoil and aquifer depletion, energy to build the ethanol plant, etc. were not part of the analysis. They said they didn't have good information on these things, so they just omitted any attempt to account for them (i.e., the actual energy return is lower than they reported).

For a dry mill process, they reported that the energy return is 1.10 - 10% ethanol energy produced - and the weighted average of the two is 1.06. Those are the raw, unedited numbers. In other words, input 1 BTU of fossil fuels, output 1.06 BTUs of ethanol. Even Mr. Dinneen can’t dispute that almost all of ethanol’s BTUs (even with accounting tricks) are derived from fossil fuels - hence my argument that ethanol is recycled natural gas. If you apply the ethanol subsidy only to the “produced” energy, you will be quite shocked at how expensive that created energy was. I leave that exercise to the reader.

In Table 4, to the right, you can see the "adjusted" numbers, and the energy return of 1.67. So, how did they do that?

What they have done, is they have lowered the energy inputs into the ethanol process by a great deal. And the way they did that was to change their methodology from the 2002 report. Instead of taking an energy credit for co-products, what they did was allocate energy inputs to the co-product. By doing this, they subtracted the energy inputs allocated to ethanol, and therefore inflated the energy return for ethanol. In other words, they are saying “we didn’t really use that much energy to make ethanol, we used a lot of it to make co-products. Therefore, we are only counting part of the energy inputs against ethanol production.”

But utilizing this type of accounting, I could manipulate the ethanol energy return to anything I wanted, just by allocating the energy inputs differently. You want an ethanol energy return of 3/1? Just allocate 65% of the energy inputs to the co-products. How about an energy return of infinity for ethanol? Just allocate all of the energy inputs to the co-product. It makes the co-product energy return look horrible, but it artificially boosts the ethanol energy return. And they aren't reporting the co-product energy return (who cares about that, right?), so you get an exaggerated energy return for ethanol production.

Dried distillers grains (DDGS) have become a very useful tool for the ethanol industry. When you point out that the ethanol energy balance is poor, they take a BTU credit for DDGS, just as if you could fuel your car with it. But they have now figured out that they place more of the "blame" of energy of production into the DDGS and exaggerate the energy return for ethanol. But you can't have it both ways. If the energy of production gets dumped into DDGS, it suddenly becomes a lousy co-product with an incredibly high energy cost to produce. Using the ethanol proponents’ arguments about fuel quality, DDGS is an extremely low quality fuel with an extremely high energy cost.

Bottom line: Playing with the numbers doesn't change the fact that ethanol production is marginally above energy neutral. Despite Mr. Dinneen's claim that this is a "misconception offered by ethanol novices", it is in fact true, based on the government’s own numbers. Mr. Dinneen and those who repeat the 1.67 number are misleading the public, since you can't actually achieve that without also getting a co-product with a terrible energy return.

Mr. Dinneen concludes with:

It is entirely appropriate to have a debate about our energy policy in this country.

I agree. Here's my proposal. Three rounds, 2,000 word limit per round, with the debate hosted at the RFA site, at The Oil Drum, and at my blog. We would each have one week between entries. While I think it is appropriate to debate Mr. Dinneen, as he is making the claims, I don't really care who you line up (maybe Professer Bruce Dale is available?). On my side will be just me.

I suggest the debate resolution: "Corn Ethanol is Responsible Energy Policy." I will take the negative. If you have an alternate proposal, I would be glad to entertain it. But I insist that the debate is fact-based, and not ad hominem-based. All claims at RFA’s site will be fair game, as will all the ethanol claims I have made.

So, how about it? If readers are interested in seeing the RFA defend their claims, or if you just relish the possibility of seeing me get trounced, let them know at info@ethanolrfa.org.


1. Shapouri, H., J.A. Duffield, and M. Wang. 2002. The Energy Balance of Corn Ethanol: An Update. AER-814. Washington, D.C.: USDA Office of the Chief Economist.

2. Shapouri, H., J.A. Duffield, and M. Wang. 2004. The 2001 Net Energy Balance of Corn Ethanol. Washington, D.C.: USDA Office of the Chief Economist.

Robert: IMO, the strongest argument the guy has is that the actual cost of crude oil to the average American taxpayer is far above $72 a barrel. Not counted is : 1. the incredible cost of the US military over and above what would be expended in an oil-free scenario and 2. the price paid in non-monetary terms, i.e. increased terrorism, loss of individual freedoms in the USA. He is right that both ethanol and the oil business are very heavily subsidized by the US taxpayer.

IMO, the strongest argument the guy has is that the actual cost of crude oil to the average American taxpayer is far above $72 a barrel.

No doubt. But, 1). That is not the topic of this essay; 2). Subsidizing ethanol is not going to change that a bit; 3). Since that subsidized oil is used to make ethanol, they are enjoying some benefit from those subsidies as well.

Believe me, I wish consumers paid more for oil so we would stretch out our supplies. But it wasn't the oil companies asking for Iraq to be invaded. If anything, it was because of consumers who scream bloody murder if gas prices exceed $3/gallon. If we don't secure oil supplies, things are unstable and people have to pay too much. Can't have that, or we would have passed a gas tax long ago. So, the politicians try to make sure the oil keeps flowing - not for the oil companies, but for consumers demanding cheap energy.

But it wasn't the oil companies asking for Iraq to be invaded... If we don't secure oil supplies, things are unstable and people have to pay too much... So, the politicians try to make sure the oil keeps flowing - not for the oil companies, but for consumers demanding cheap energy.

Robert, that's a very flimsy interpretation if I've ever seen one. You're right on ethanol being a boondoggle that gives MLM a run for its money. However, that first sentence is just too funny, because it is clearly wrong. The second sentence is just a truism based on the the cult of infinite growth economics into a finite resource base (even though most people will deny this premise too.) However, your last sentence I quoted is just absurd--they're doing it for the "consumer"... Yeah right. Sure, if that's how you want to spin it to make it sound nice for the cameras. Hey, I love blaming the "consumer" as much the next guy, but lets not pull punches. The ethanol people disingenuously lie to the cameras so the swindle can continue unobstructed, but somehow the oil companies don't... I'm not buying it. Sorry this isn't the topic of the essay, but you brought it up in your response, so I do apologize for observing that your friendly neighborhood oil company (XOM, etc.) certainly had a massive role in the march to invade and occupy a foreign country. Yes, for oil, although Tony Snow and Bob Dinneen will certainly never say so, because they're ideologues, zealot cultists pure and simple. Just like this guy.

However, that first sentence is just too funny, because it is clearly wrong.

Perhaps you can show me then? I have personally never heard anyone inside the industry suggest that we should invade Iraq or any other country to stabilize oil supplies, and I have never heard any major oil company executive argue in favor of it. If you have, I wish you would show me a source because I have never seen it. I am not saying that we aren't there because of oil, but we aren't there on behalf of oil companies.

I do apologize for observing that your friendly neighborhood oil company (XOM, etc.) certainly had a massive role in the march to invade and occupy a foreign country.

Show me. If oil prices go up because of instability in Iraq and the Middle East, oil companies still make money. But if oil prices go up and the economy stumbles, politicians risk losing their jobs. Oil companies may want access to more resources, but I certainly never heard any of them suggesting that we should invade another country over it. That decision was made by the president that you elected, in an effort to stabilize oil prices and keep the economy humming along and the citizens happy. (And I am certainly not defending the president, because I spoke out against going to war before we ever invaded).

Look at Venezuela. Oil companies have a much more compelling reason to be ticked off there. Which oil companies are calling for an invasion after their investments were seized?

Sorry to drag this thread off topic, I'll make this my last comment here and I'll wrap it up, promise.

I don't think I could show you. I could only hint at critiques, and speculation (that's what politics is). One reason I can't show you a source is that, if I could, it would be extremely damaging to the parties involved. ("If I told 'ja I'd have to kill ya." ;] ) Everyone knows about the secretive/sketchy Cheney energy task force meetings. Supposedly they talked about Iraq. If they didn't, they're dumber than I thought... As for executives, that's not their role to publicly declare war. Or pontificate on foreign policy. They're supposed to smile and make shareholders happy and hope for a bright hunky-dory future. That's why the executives and their parent corporations hire think tanks, and certainly have divisions within their own corporations who perform a similar role within their very own company (as opposed to the industry, oligopoly-like positioning that the major think tanks limn for their corporate masters.) Anyway, I'm sure they keep a big hallway between these people and the technical experts, such as yourself. We haven't even jumped into the brisk cold waters of academia yet either! Let me note I respect people and families that work in the oil and gas industry--they are just people doing their jobs for the most part dutifully, and in many cases in highly dangerous, or daunting situations. My hat is off to them. I do have a problem with the politics of the upper echelon of the oil corporations though--and see them as responsible for a lot of truly evil PR, history and "guidance". This isn't about being "liberal" or "conservative", or dunkey or elephant. It is simply about appreciating that "leaders" of the industry to a large extent have been responsible for building us up mindlessly to this point we're at now, with little care for anything else aside from profits. (The ANWR crowd is merely one minnow indicative of this mindlessness). Alas, that's what a corporation is supposed to do, turn profits. As you said down thread, I only wish they would do it honestly without blatantly manipulative propaganda... I do believe that one can make a profit without being sinisterly uncaring of the future.

Of course, you have a rosy take on things that go on inside your realm, politically, because from your perspective you are hired to perform an actual job (versus being paid to come up with hifalutin rationalizations for illegal wars)--and you probably do it extremely well, judging from what I've read of your writing over the years. You're probably friends with tons of decent, downright cool oil and gas dudes. I'm not trying to make a blanket statement that everything that the oil industry does is evil or something, I'm just pointing out that simply because you don't personally agree with the top-brass doesn't in anyway explicate away their self-destructive, purely profit driven behavior--and I just love to state this as often as possible while I lumber around God's green earth for my few moments of life. So, again, I think we are there on behalf of the oil companies--but this is a futile debate, I'm just putting out my counter opinion for the peanut gallery. I can't "prove it" just like I can't prove to a believing a Christian that there is no "personal God". In politics there is no proof, just pudding--which is why things get messy so quickly.

You seem to think there is a big difference between the power structures of "politicians" and the "oil companies." I'm not so sure. I think to the extent that the US is an O&G empire, that our politics and energy policy are like two peas in a pod. It is convenient to blame Bush though, right? Personally, I'm over hating Bush. Everyone seems to do it, and it is hysterical how our "democracy" can function as a ready and easy explication for why things are so screwed up. Truismville. Obviously no one can debate that. It becomes the "consumers" fault--which, again, I'm more than willing to accept... It's just that critique deflects the political reality, which is that the powerful decision making forces (the people with lots of money--institutional capital and wealthy individuals) have a much more powerful say in how things function than the middle class combined. And I'll just note that I'm not saying you support(ed) Bush, but you are using him as a scapegoat--which is something I like to avoid, because how can anyone blame an invisible hand sock puppet?

I'm afraid the most proof I'll ever have is Dick Cheney himself, pudding or no pudding.

Oddly, I received an email of the Cheney clip from a family member and posted it over on Drumbeat...within a few hours of your link above.

Hmmm. Do we share space on someone's mailing list, or might we merely be hosts for some viral message (cough, cough) going around. And why now?

Just asking.

Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.

A friend sent it earlier. I had never seen it, and I haven't made my way to today's DrumBeat comment section yet... So, I feel amiss now taking this thread off into already covered territory with the ostensible excuse of posting that pisser clip... =[ My bad.

This less known line from that bad 80s spoof we all love, applies to Dick:

Fletch's girlfriend: [Fletch is listening to a tape of him and his girlfriend having sex] You're not recording this, are you?
Fletch: No, never, never.

Yikes! You know Fletch! Spooky action at a distance.

(Sorry RR for gumming up the posts)

You seem to think there is a big difference between the power structures of "politicians" and the "oil companies."

They are after very different end games, which is why the "XOM was behind the Iraq invasion" falls apart. Think about it. What do you think was the goal of the administration in invading Iraq? Do you think they intended to make oil more expensive? That's what has happened, but of course that wasn't the intent. The intent was stability, more supplies, and ultimately lower prices for consumers.

Do you think lower prices for consumers is XOM's business model?

You know, I hear this business all the time - "Oil companies should pay the bill for Iraq." Just as soon as someone offers me something besides twisted speculation to support the theory that they were behind the invasion - or pushed for the invasion - I would be more willing to entertain that. And the way you responded, I really thought you might have some actual evidence. But I have been waiting for one for quite some time, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised that you didn't offer one. This stuff always seems to go in behind doors in smoke-filled rooms, so we can all kinds of speculation ends up being thrown out there.

In yet another violation of my promise I just finished this ramble, and now realized mbkennel already made many of these points in a much more pithy deployment directly below. Alas...

Never wrote they should pay the bill for Iraq, I just said they were a strong element in the march to go invade Iraq, that's all. I was "against" that effort, siding with the older (I mean younger) and wiser Dick Cheney of the reign of Bush One, who saw it as a disaster waiting to happen. Regardless of the price of oil, it was a decision made to secure control of oil production. Do you think higher prices is XOM's business model? I think it could very well be their business model seeing as how it has been pretty extensively documented for those interested that PO is happening soon, perhaps very soon, like, now. The rest is econ101 debate school or Doomer/Cornucopian speculation. In either case, whatever the outlook for prices I think we all agree that they are capable of going much higher, depending on the rocks below and the human mind above.

The alternative to Iraq that Bush One and Clinton embraced was pretty horrendous too, but go ask an Iraqi if they'd rather have the brutally tortuous dictator Saddam (who we loved to deal with in the 80s) or the present American occupation and "Albert Maliki Government" and I'm absolutely sure the vast majority of non-Kurds would tell you Saddam in a heartbeat. Yeah, it sucked, and was awful--but now it's that except with the additional misery of suicide bombers day in day out, our soldiers dying in Humvees blown up by IEDs as they attempt to patrol around with essentially no "mission"--the mission is to not get shot or blown-up, from what I gather.

Saddam was a monster and perhaps the neocons were right that eventually he would screw stuff up in the region and he "had" to be removed. Their tack seems to be start trouble before trouble finds you. The problem, as the-VP-that-reads-everything noticed back then was that the intelligence community had already shuffled the deck and run the scenarios. HAL told them Iraq would have major problems if Saddam was deposed. It seems that Dick & Company have changed their mind since then, willfully and deceptively deciding to pursue the course of events that have transpired--all the way from the launch of the invasion, to viceroy Bremer's illustrious duration up until whatever the hell happens in that country tomorrow... Things are not looking rosy.

The idea that agents of the hawkish elements within the oil industry heavily influenced the march to go to war "falls apart" I grant you only so long as you admit that the political ideologues who launched the war at least had the interests of their corporate bedfellows in mind--and that those bedfellows were indeed hawkish. The interests and wishes of the oil industry don't "fall apart" anymore than the idea that global oil production "falls down"--other than the fact that it will, eventually. At some point down the road we won't be able to maintain hundreds of thousands of troops in a foreign country ravaged by insane warring factions, simply in order to secure oil production to stave off the inevitable. We clearly are not wanted in the region, yet we stay because that is the realpolitik situation because security is so bad. Security is so bad because we invaded, and now we won't leave because... The tautology is astounding. This is a pattern that has been running since Operation Ajax in the 50s. Foreign powers attempt to meddle in the interests of domestic policies in countries and eventually run into ugly trouble. In the 50s it was the "Cold War", with BP, England, the US and her major oil companies all concerned that they're not losing control over vital energy resources, and more importantly not letting it slip into the hands of the communist enemy. Our military presence in the "holy land" of Saudi Arabia, and our enthusiastic support since FDR of the sinister power structure within that country is one of the main ingredients in the kool-aid that jihadist plots are hatched in. Security in Iraq is not going to get better no matter how much we "surge", no matter how much blood is spilt, or people maimed. The administration is biding time, so the next round of nincompoops can take the hit. The "strategery" seems to be that it is better to strong-arm your opponent (OPEC) when you have them in a headlock. Our continual presence in the region is clearly highlighted by the activities of the fundamentalist religious state Iran and her perhaps even equally corrupt counterpart Saudi. Aside from Israel (corruption soaks the middle east, Abraham was no fool!), oil and geopolitical power politics wrap up the business and government of the entire region. What's left in the cultural wake is religion, and sometimes in the form of a very ugly, reactionary fundamentalism against modernity, ie 9/11, or the maniacal religious Israelis who build illegal settlements (I'm going by what the government of Israel itself declares as illegal), or the demented suicide bombers of Hamas. My point is that our foreign policy is a piecemeal reflection of how we respond to crises. By my standards, the fact that the political power structure decided (I'm assuming with the approving nod of the executive O&G industry) to go into Iraq after 9/11 instead of reassess other options in my mind only emboldens my point that no such action would be undertaken lightly--especially by people who at one point took up the opposite position on the matter, Dick Cheney circa Bush One. It is interesting that oilmanbob actually edified this for me by pointing out how Dick had his stint in the "industry" after his extensive public service. It seems like this is what took him from the Powell Doctrine to the wild fantasies of Wolfowitz in around a decade. Much of our foreign policy in the Middle East is obviously about oil, so why would would the major US transnational oil corporations be excluded from influencing policy? After all free speech is money, so says the supreme court, I forget the case, but it's an important one.

I'll reiterate that oil companies don't have to pay for Iraq since I'm sure we're already giving ourselves a swell deal anyway. This is a disaster for the military, but is a wonderful opportunity to write a good oil law. Last time I checked the country had the fourth largest oil reserves in the world. So, it's a good thing we are there to help "them" manage it.

Generally oil *majors* like a democracy---or a compliant dictator who keeps the peace and protects their investments.

I believe that in the current Iraq situation there was a cabal from the Chalabi side who envisioned personal enrichment by giving out new Iraq contracts to independents and tearing up the agreements Saddam had with France & Russia etc.

The neocon dream was to install profit-seeking companies which would pump the bejezus out of Iraq outside of quota and destroy OPEC.

Oil major dream was quite different---their people are the "realists" of the GHWB1 administration (e.g. Jim Baker etc) and they don't see eye to eye with the neocons. They're conservative in the old-fashioned actually conservative sense and prefer incremental business-friendly stability.

Of course service companies coveted massive new contracts upgrading the dilapitated infrastructure in any event.

One good thing about The Oil Drum is that people look at background physical facts, which speak more truthfully than the jibber jabber of self-interested public figures.

And that fact is that Iraq is the only remaining place on the planet with large scale known and predicted oil which hasn't been explored or developed with modern technology for decades. Any oil company with physical access and favorable economic terms would be stupendously successful.

That can't be just a coincidence.

As is the inverse correlation of Bush's popularity with gasoline prices. I believe that a significant fraction of Bush's supporters on Iraq (up to half) knew the war was mostly about "oil". And they were OK with that. But when the gas price went sharply up instead of down they felt ripped off.

mr f,

Thats an amazing piece of propoganda and stereotyping.Check your facts. Dick Cheney is a professional politician. He had never even had a job in the oil business when he made that video that you linked to in your comment. He worked there only five years, and resigned when he was nominated to be George W. Bush's Vice President.

If you will listen to the video again, what you hear is George H. W. Bush's position before his son became president, not the position that he publicly supports today, a mumbled "support our troops" stance.

The rich jerks that financed the Bush family rise in Texas politics inherited their money. They are the children and grandchildren of the founders of Exxon and Texaco, families like the Alkeck's, the Fondren's and the Farish's. George Herbert Walker was the current president's grandfather, and he was on the board of directors of Dresser, and the Bush family owned a very large block of stock in Haliburton after the merger with Dresser , as does the Carlysle group, another Bush front. The Bush family had Cheney hired by Haliburton as a reward for many years of loyal skulldugery in operations like Iran-Contra.

Yes, this is all confusing. The Bush's keep it that way to throw people off the scent, and the real truth. They are doing it all for the money. They use anyone they can, especially stupid rich folks at the River Oaks Country Club.

But young George W. Bush is out of anyone's control. He invaded Iraq in spite of what others said-listen to the Cheney video again, it shows their real position. The rest of the group went along because there is good money to be made as war profiteers, and under Cheney, Brown and Root merged with Haliburton, the same Brown and Root that made huge money in Viet Nam.

But to say that the oil business was the secret group in control behind the Iraq war is like the premise of the Protocol of the Elders of Zion, that rich Jewish bankers are at fault for everything and control the world. It plays directly off of people's stereotypes, but its not true, its a lie to distract people from what should as clear as the the nose on your face-its is the naked lust for money and power that is behind the whole thing.

Always follow the money. Especially with the Bush family.

The good old predictable "Check your facts" line that I know too well. I think I have. Yes. Everything is propaganda--you just have to make sure who it's for, you don't want it delivered to the wrong person! In this case, propaganda in support of the collections of neurons in my brain that say you are wholly unjustified in equating "Elders of Zion" conspiracy theories with a foreign policy stance that the major oil companies and their minions underwrite.

By minions I mean those that "aid and abet" the powerful interests which have a stake in "infinite growth into a finite resource base." That is practically everyone! At least, amongst those in the "elite." Since our complex systems are powered by hydrocarbons, that essentially means energy is at the top--everyone else waits for a dole out in exchange for some fiat currency.

I don't understand how you can accuse me of stereotyping though... On what basis?

You make a long and tedious rant about some old money families that still have money and power--but there is a market out there, and there are people with different types of power, doing entirely different "things." I'm engaged in stereotyping I don't know how...

I'm sure you'll tell me it's because Chevron has such wonderful ads in Harper's magazine or something...

Oh, and sorry for breaking my promise upthread.

Also, I might add that Dick's order of going from PNAC apparatchik to the private sector O&G industry hardly matters. In this case, it seems to indicate only further the impetus that experience gave him to address PO in this fashion (invade and occupy Iraq) versus the more rational (albeit liberal) response. His mind was easily changed by the sleek world of the XOM et al.

It's a circle jerk chain. The consumer is one link. The consumer has no fuel to go and spend, lots of things stop.
It is what it is, one link breaks and everything stops until alternatives can be found.
The rest is semantics, it can be put in many different ways. Doesn't change a thing.

Yes. My contention is just that the gerbil-consumer is not at the reins when it comes to foreign policy, after all he or she is too busy on the squeaky wheel. The gerbil-consumer invading foreign countries? To say so is absurd (with that said, their tax dollars are going to pay for it...) The reins clearly rest in the hands of the people with power, money and influence. That is to say a circle jerk of Democrats, Republicans, oil corporations, economists and many others... Sure, Republicans elected them, but Democrats went along for the ride, and will most likely kick the elephants out soon and start wildly driving themselves around on a joyride. Either way, both the mainstream donkey and elephant live in the same house, they just have different personality disorders...

Yeah, and the same owner.

BrianT wrote:

Not counted is : 1. the incredible cost of the US military over and above what would be expended in an oil-free scenario

That 'scenario', however, would best be labeled a hallucination.

So, we must stay close to reality when we dream up our scenarios for accounting purposes.

Remember too that although Iraq is substantially about oil, it's not really that much about Iraqi oil for American use. The US very much fears that its enemies will use mid-east oil to pry away its allies and cripple its influence worldwide. The European street may not like the US, but their elites are far more sympathetic. (Even openly so, in Sarko's case)

Whoever controls ME oil, gets a huge say in the global agenda. Regardless of how much or little they depend on it, all other nations depend on it.

If you compare the wholesale price of ethanol per gallon vs the wholesale price of gasoline per gallon and add a 50 cent per gallon Federal subsidy for ethanol and then figure that ethanol gets about 80% of the mileage that gasoline does, then you might find the cost of a barrel of ethanol is higher than the cost of gasoline per barrel. At the same time ethanol subsidies and clean air laws have driven up food prices, especially for poor Mexicans whose staple food is corn meal for their tortillas.

I know they are related, but - explicitly - what about the CO2 balance? How much CO2 is produced as a result of corn ethanol production, and how much is saved by using it as an alternative to gasoline?

I have seen a number of studies on this, none of which were a ringing endorsement. The latest I saw was a DOE study that said 4% CO2 reduction from ethanol over gasoline. I will try to find a link.

It was E85 that was associated with a 4% reduction:


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.

There is never going to be a huge difference. Ethanol and gasoline are both organic carbon chains containing C, H, and O. H2O and CO2 will ALWAYS come out at the end of the reaction, improvements can never be more than marginal.

They are looking at total life cycle. If, for example, ethanol took no fossil fuel inputs, one could say that it was carbon neutral: What was produced during combustion was taken up during the growth cycle.

By that logic so is Oil and Natural Gas if given enough time. The trouble now is we've let the genie out of the bottle and already increased our total atmospheric CO2 levels. Being CO2 neutral will only keep us in place at best, and at worst with the apparent effects global warming is already having it may be too late to stop some of the positive feedback mechanisms that are kicking off.

In otherwords even if Ethanol were "all that" when it came to being good fuel, the fact that it will only be cycling carbon into and then out of the ground means it will not be enough to undo the damage already done.

If you look at the total greenhouse gas emissions, including the nitrogen oxides from the cornfields (and the NOx, a product of the chemical fertilization, is a far more potent GHG than CO2), corn ethanol comes out as far worse for the climate.

Not the CO2-phobics!

We're talking about life and death here, not CO2.

You can drown in Milk, BrussellNM. It's all about balance.

Are you able to show us that excessive CO2 is not a problem?


When I chose my new name I did so with the intention of addressing the ethanol binge here in Iowa, but this problem has promptly been buried under a dogpile of people much more organized and articulate than I, so I'm reduced to cheerleading via pithy comments.

We know corn ethanol is a loser that happens to not affect the status quo with big oil while allowing politicians to point to "efforts being made". The sooner the whole world knows it the sooner we start getting a sensible feedstock and a plan to salvage some of the corn ethanol infrastructure we've built.

SacredCowTipper, I mean Tippler,

Stop with the paranoia, get off the pitty-pot!

Your opinions count, possibly even more than the opinions of "experts". There is no credentialing board at TOD. The only experts are the self appointed ones. My expertise, such as it is ,is the point of view of an independent landman in the oil patch since 1975. I'm great on oil and gas leases, and some phases of exploration and development in the lower 48, particularly onshore Texas. Pretty narrow,if you ask me, and its the same with everyone who posts here.

The real strength of The Oil Drum is that so many experts from so many narrow disciplines have gathered here to honestly discuss energy economics and policy without recompense or support of any agenda; its an open forum. We share our experience and knowledge.

Our hope is that we'll come to a better understanding, and maybe have a little collective influence on the world and its energy uses.

Our desire, similar almost to a church or political point of view, is for a better world for all.

So even if your opinions only show us how well we are communicating, it is vital. Please do not stop posting, or trying to understand and make the changes we are all going through!

Bob Ebersole

I do have a bit of expertise but its far, far away from oil & gas production. If you wanted to build a network in rural America to support voice, video, and data I can probably come across with some useful information.

Oh, and I'd add noisy progressive political activist to my list of talents. I've made the front page on DailyKos a couple of times in my previous incarnation. This was my first attempt at rabble rousing with a peak oil spin and it got a little traction - 42 comments so far as I make this post to TOD.


I was high on ethanol once....

Then I started reading David Pimentel's work. I tried my best to ignore it. And as the battle with ANL raged, it was clear the soul of the future once again lay in the hands of a few.

IMO, corn, cane, and for that matter any plants or other living organic matter should not, at scale, be burned to fire transit to the 7-11. Nature stored a lot more into those little things, we don't have to be wasteful and stupid.

Thanks, RR, for diligently and doggedly pursuing this issue. The battlefronts are everywhere.

My two bits today.. maybe I misspoke by including 'Subsidies', but I think the point remains clear enough, and left it in their court to address if they wished...

"Dear RFA;

I am writing in good will to ask you to take the offer by Mr. Rapier to debate the merits of Corn Ethanol in US Energy Policy and Subsidy structures.

I have followed debates of his in the past and can tell you that he is fair and reasonable to a fault, and insists on a level-headed discussion based on facts and reliable sources.

I am not an energy-professional, and have not got enough expertise myself to take a firm side on the topic, so I am eager to hear dedicated professionals in this arena presenting the many, complex issues that have to be considered when evaluating a fuel like Ethanol, and the ramifications of an extensive scaling up of this energy-carrier.

I heard about this challenge at 'The Oil Drum', where I regularly follow the race for new energy solutions. Please convince us that Corn Ethanol should be considered a viable option and why.

Bob Fiske
Portland, Maine

have you watched this
david fridley, the first I've heard of him

David is excellent and very thoughtful; he's the one who turned me on to TOD about 15 months ago.


Thanks for your work on this issue. I would like to see a debate with Bruce Dale who seems to be presenting interesting arguments on why net energy is not the main issue. You are making similar arguements when you say that coproducts can't really be counted with energy inputs since they make poor quality fuel. I would expand the scope of the debate to look at what contribution rooted plants can make to our current liquid fuel use since yields for these are pretty well established except for some outliers like tobacco which have not been studied as much. On this issue, I think you'll be on quite firm ground.

Issues that I've found interesting are farming methods that dramatically reduce the amount of nitrogen needed for corn, possibilities that nitrogen fertilizer production does not require fossil fuels, and barriers to pipeline use for biofuel distribution. Don't know if these can be addressed in a 12,000 word exchange.


MD and Robert;
I think it is essential in this kind of comparison (Net Energy), if it were to become qualified by 'fuel quality', to include some kind of metric that accounts for the quality or value of Water required as an input into the Crops/Fuels. This might be effectively a red-herring argument, in that placing a money value on a resource that is both threatened AND absolutely essential to life for ourselves, our crops and livestock, etc.. and so is probably an impossible task. But it is a critical factor, nonetheless.


The article at your link has been discussed here before, I think.

The article's "quality" issues approach is specious.

The author confuses price (as a function of economic expediency) and useful function (the net MJ that goes into "work".)

His paragraph on the net energy of gasoline begs the question of why use "net energy", when he ignores the issue of the net energy of oil that we use today (and historically why oil was used over corn and other grains.) He thinks it is clever to compare net energy of gasoline to ethanol, but that is misleading. The important difference is the EROEI for petroleum (as diesel, kerosene, etc are as useful as gasoline) vs the EROEI of corn grain. Both are the end products of human labor to get an item that can be used in a variety of products, some uses of which do overlap.

After all, corn itself can be burned directly as an energy source, and you can buy grain ovens to use in your home for this purpose. You can also burn petroleum directly (imagine no pollution controls!) Compare them directly then one understands why the 20th century was built on oil and not on burning corn.

This was indeed the key issue in a comment in a Drumbeat a few days ago which probably should be brought forward again. Man has been making ethyl alcohol for a few millenia now... and during that time homo sapiens decided to use it as a drug rather than for industry. It simply makes more sense to use the dried plant if all you want to do is get the energy out of those C-H bonds to heat something (and in the case of the ICE all you want to do is heat a volume of gas to expand a cylinder.)

Several of his arguments are not in good faith, such as the one about electricity production. Here he is clearly misrepresenting the issue of "net energy" arguments. I could take the same approach with corn alcohol and the automobile (i.e., the chemical energy carrier and the human useful function.)

In key parts of his paper he is being fallacious. (And, IMO, his article indeed is unworthy of a major research university Ph.D and would never stand up to a peer reviewed science journal. He confuses physics, economics, and engineering.)

The issue with corn alcohol is very simple and the US government understands it implicitly (even though it is not stated explicitly for political reasons.) That the US government has to bribe blenders with 50 cent/gal to make ethanol means that the free market would otherwise reject this "solution". For corn alcohol to be a true free market solution there would have to be an advantage to replace a (more than trivial as an additive) percentage of gasoline in a gallon with ethyl alcohol. It just doesn't exist. If one could greatly increase the amount of alcohol per acre (so that ethyl alcohol could be truly cheap), say with cellulosic source rather than only from the sugars in the seed... then there might be a reason to use ethyl alcohol to displace some gasoline.

The reason I prefer a debate with Dale is that he advances arguments. I think that these may be addressed in a debate usefully. There is a difference between a corn stove and a liquid fuel, and this is the basis of Dale's argument which he might better flesh out in debate with Robert.

I also think there is a fundemental difference between farm subsidies and energy subsidies. The quantity you want to push to zero with farm subsidies is years of famine. A just in time market for food does not run large enough surpluses to avoid famine so you assure larger surpluses even though this increases the overall cost of food. With energy subsidies you want to open up methods to reduce the cost of energy as a percentage of GDP. You give new methods of producing energy a start to see if they will help with this. The ratio of subsidies per energy produced for fusion is infinite right now, but it is possible that over time it will go to zero and at the same time provide much more energy for much less effort.

Which is the ethanol subsidy? Farm of energy? I think it is a little of both and has problems fulfilling either role.

Applying net energy anaysis at the wrong point in a cycle can also be a problem. If you have a pile of wood in a shed and ask what it the EROEI you get zero. You need to burn the wood first to get the gain. This may seem like semantics, but you bring up second generation biofuels. If, after 20 years we have 10% of our energy use coming from biofuels and 90% of that (over the 20 years) is from second generation fuels with EROEI of 7 or so, was it such a bad thing to start building up the infrastructure for that when the instantaneous EROEI was 1.3? It certainly hastens the ability to ramp up second generation fuel to have that stuff going. Flex fuel vehicles, distrubution infrastructure, stills, all that is encouraged by corn ethanol. As an energy subsidy, the ethanol susbidy might give us cheaper liquid fuels sooner since EROEI for oil can only go down. I just saw bulk canola oil being offered for sale at about $50/barrel in Egypt. Don't know what subsidies went into that price but it is a good bit lower than crude.

There are a breadth of issues that need to be debated, including the right way to use net energy analysis and that is why I'd prefer a debate with Dale rather than Dinneen who seems to have less of a clue.


I think it is good to compare it to how much energy it takes to get a gallon of gasoline. Pumping, transporting, storing, refining, blending, all take energy.
The last I heard, you put 1 unit of energy in and you get 0.8 units of energy out.

If you are using natural gas to make the nitrogen fertilizer for corn, natural gas is an energy source not commonly used in cars and you could use biomass gasification to get the hydrogen for the ammonia for the nitrogen fertilizer. If you are using coal as the heat source for distillation of ethanol, coal is an energy source not used in cars and you could use biomass and/or solar thermal as the heat source for distillation of ethanol. So, you are converting energy sources like natural gas and coal to ethanol, much like refining crude oil into gasoline.

"you put 1 unit of energy in and you get 0.8 units of energy out."

- RR already answered that one, read his text again. The short of it: you put 0.2 (not 1.0) units in to get the 0.8 out. The 0.2 (in your example) is the portion of the energy contents lost (as in burnt) in the process.

"If you are using natural gas to make the nitrogen fertilizer for corn, natural gas is an energy source not commonly used in cars"

- but _could_ be used for cars as-is, or other, more useful, purposes, such as home heating. Wasting it on ethanol is foolish.

"and you could use biomass gasification to get the hydrogen for the ammonia for the nitrogen fertilizer."

- try that and see why net energy is important....

"you could use biomass and/or solar thermal as the heat source for distillation of ethanol."

- ditto

The last I heard, you put 1 unit of energy in and you get 0.8 units of energy out.

Using that same metric for ethanol, 1 unit of energy in equals less than 0.3 units out, provided you count the coproducts as energy. You can't compare an efficiency to an energy return.

If you are using natural gas to make the nitrogen fertilizer for corn, natural gas is an energy source not commonly used in cars...

Brazil, which we typically associate with ethanol, has 8 times the natural gas vehicles that we do in the U.S. And it does perform quite well as a transportation fuel. Coal is a different story, but not an environmentally friendly one.

Robert Rapier – I’ve followed your debunking of the ethanol-business claims for some time, and I’m very impressed by your way of putting this forward in a clearly understandable way – kudos (!)

Now – if we (the world) are at Peak-oil or nearby today and there are strong signals that we are – it is time to sober up!
And the very idea of the ongoing bio-salvation put forward in media and by governments are more or less proofs of the same –

As I see it, and as the reality of ethanol/bio-fuel now actually taking a firm place at the world’s energy-stage, IT has to be scrutinized throughoutly – FOR WHAT IT IS!

It is incredible important knowing TODAY what bio-fuels actually are ADDING TO SOCIETY – not short-term but long-term. Short term it is “wrapped-up inside the safeties of fossil fuel” – and the EROEI-reality is obscured.

My “100% SAFE & Guaranteed Reality Check” for all sorts of renewable energy sources would be:

Have the producers and manufacturers of these NEW solutions, ONLY USE THEIR OWN ENERGY -TO PRODUCE THEIR ENERGY-SOLUTIONS (for the most included process-steps)

IF this Reality-test was undertaken – they would at least have an idea of where this would go in the future ….
We would also get a serious grasp on how difficult (easy?) production and maintenance of energy producing equipments will be in 50-100 years time …in a time of dwindling fossils…

(this very REPLY was shifted to todays (Aug. 15)Drumbeat, because of slightly off topic here, BUT absolutely worth to read by your puzzled energy-brain... :-))

Rule of thumb – “ONE WINDTURBINE CAN RUN ONE SEMI-TRAILER, thats wind folks... (!)”

Erm.. cost of ethanol subsidy per gallon.

.06/1.06 of that energy is newly created. Take the reciprocal.
1.06/.06 * cost of ethanol subsidy per gallon. Holy Crap!
The government is paying 18$ per gallon to create ethanol energy. (assuming the ethanol subsidy is around 1$ per gallon, I've found a few websites siting between .50 and 1.50)

There are two things going on in the conversion of one unit of fossil fuel to 1.06 units of ethanol.

First the additional .06 units are produced. Secondly, and maybe more importantly, non-liquid fuels are converted to more valuable, liquid fuels.

So it is not accurate to use the calculation that you apply above as being the sole benefit of ethanol.

A useful analogy is coal to liquid. Clearly there is less energy produced as liquids than used to produce them. That doesn't mean that it is necessarily a waste.

I do think corn-based ethanol is a complete boondoggle and agree with Robert on this. I don't even think that coal to liquids will ever make much sense.

I just wanted to point out that your analysis is flawed.

If the non-liquid fuel is natural gas, the value question is not so simple.  N. American natural gas is depleting more rapidly than oil (peaked some time back) and the infrastructure to import NG from overseas is spotty and perceived as dangerous.

The price of NG spiked very high in 2005 (higher than oil, IIRC), and there are no ready substitutes.  Using NG to make a gasoline substitute is penny-wise, pound-foolish.

Right... .06 additional units are produced, that is what I'm applying the subsidy towards. I'm not even considering the conversion of one fuel to another, which does have practical value.

I am getting tired of all the negativism...

While I think ethanol is over-hyped and will crash similar to the dot.com bust, I think there is some positive realities that are completely ignored.

One of the public traded ethanol firms (US BioEnergy) just reported that they have pushed conversation rates to 2.86 gallons of ethanol per bushel of corn. Back in the early 80's, the converstion rate was probably 2 or 2.2 to one. And I highly doubt that they have more energy inputs in the plant now, probably less. Back in the 80's average corn yields were probably 100-120 vs 150 now. And I know at least in our operation the amount of fossil fuel used to grow and harvest those bushels is LESS on a per acre basis (primarily the result of no-till).

So irregardless of what the energy balance looks like today, it would have looked far worse in the early 80's, and anyone with an ear to industry research realizes it will probably get significantly better... However, what NO ONE seems to acknowledge is that you have do a lot of long-term RandD to get there.

Another example, some on here have looked at the E3 Biofuels plant as a "positive" ethanol setup. The entire industry is rapidly trying to reduce fossile fuel energy use, market economics have caused that. But had there been no support from ethanol 20 years ago, there would be no E3 biofuels today.

Ethanol is certainly not the answer, and may even not be a part of the answer, but it frustrates me that we do not see value in placing multiple bets on multiple energy sources, be it biomass, wind, tidal, solar, whatever... Each may have a place, and anyone who claims to know what will be "right" 10 or 20 or 50 years from now doesn't get it..

And bottom line, the ENTIRE amount of money our government spends on supporting RandD and industry growth of alternative fuels could be doubled or trippled and pales in comparision to what we spend via the military on our oil habit, which is a cost that looks as likely to soar as any.

Everything you say might be true, but it doesn't resolve the issue of insufficient output from the ethanol process. Oil is cheap, and ethanol is far from it. Even worse, it diverts resources that would normally be used to feed people towards providing transportation fuel.

For all the strides that the plant based fuels industry has made in the past couple of decades, they're never going to replace gasoline. If they could, coal never would have replaced wood, and oil never would have replaced coal. In my opinion, we're wasting our time and irreplaceable material resources trying to make the energy density of plant matter equivalent to that of oil. We may be able to do so, but not at a scale that would leave even a shadow of our current largesse.

- Scott
"Try sour grapes; you might like them."

I appreciate your comments and in general agree with them, but think we really, really need to start addressing this "food vs. fuel" issue, esp. the idea that we are diverting food away from people and towards fuel..

Do you realize how little corn you actually eat vs. how much is grown in this country? Given the choice between eating and driving most everyone will choose to eat.

So we will never divert food to fuel. The price of corn will simply rise to the point that it is too expensive to turn into fuel, at todays ethanol/oil prices, that will happen around $3.50 to $4.00 per bushel. Do you know the additional cost you will incure from a corn price $1 to $1.5 higher than historical averages -- maybe a few bucks per year but doubtful it would be that high. And even if you removed ethanol corn HAS to go up from it's historial average as input costs (fuel/fertilizer) have gone up substantially, so if price didn't rise production would go down as land was diverted to more profitable options. Bottom line, ethanol's increase on food prices is very minimal, and if corn goes much higher plants will simply not run. Basic supply-demand concepts

I think one could make an interesting argument that biofuels (as long as use is not mandated, which I am TOTALLY against) actually increase food security. We will be producing significant (maybe as much as 1/3) of our land for biofuels, an unexpected drought or such event simply means we produce fewer biofuels making the cost of energy slightly higher, but the raw material gets diverted to the more important food use.

Biofuels will NOT solve the energy crisis in any way, shape, or form but I think they are an important concept that may actually enhance food security without massive government subsidies (Remember, farmers have been (and still are in the EU) paid big dollars to NOT grow crops on part of they land!).

Agree with some of what you said... the hard yellow corn being produced is not really important as a (healthy) food source. The world would be better off without high fructose corn syrup and margarine.

However, it is clear that the diversion of land away from other, more human-food useful products is going to cause a problem. The 2007 expected harvest from this years soybean crop is way down, but others (wheat, oats) are down too. The impact of the 2007 season has yet to be truly felt by the food consumer.

Even the diversion away from the sweet, white corn that we humans do enjoy eating may be missed by some.

We have been diverting land from other important vegetable products for years. Further, it is unfair to discriminate against green vegetables by subsidizing corn, soybeans, rice, etc. This practice especially discriminates against vegetarians and others who would like a more vegetable (healthy) based diet. Some attempts are being made to redress this in the current farm bill, but don't know if these attempts have passed or will pass.

By subidizing corn, we are subsidizing death, or at least those products which lead to a more unhealthy population. I am tired of paying more for green vegetables than for meat.

We have been diverting land from other important vegetable products for years. Further, it is unfair to discriminate against green vegetables by subsidizing corn, soybeans, rice, etc. This practice especially discriminates against vegetarians and others who would like a more vegetable (healthy) based diet. Some attempts are being made to redress this in the current farm bill, but don't know if these attempts have passed or will pass.

By subidizing corn, we are subsidizing death, or at least those products which lead to a more unhealthy population. I am tired of paying more for green vegetables than for meat.

So we will never divert food to fuel.

dgrimm, you must be completely discounting the export ledger of US agribusiness, including any humanitarian relief


Do you realize how little corn you actually eat vs. how much is grown in this country?

You're forgetting how much corn you eat via intermediaries:

  • Beef, pork, chicken, turkey and even catfish.
  • Milk (butter, cheese) and eggs.
  • Soft drinks (HFCS).

That's not even an exhaustive list.  It's likely that almost everything you eat that isn't made entirely of something else (peanuts, soybeans, potatoes) has some contribution from corn.  Even your bourbon.

Point taken - bio fuels will have to be looked upon as
fuel for emergency trucking, military and other high end usage. It may be worthwhile for a small percentage of transport but not the main bulk transport.

Whats frustrating is the R&D money is not being placed into effect in any coherent way. Just a bunch of pet projects for local pork. I fear we may be stuck with the technology we have to solve the bulk of the problems.

I am getting tired of all the negativism...

Understand, this is not an essay about whether ethanol ever, under any circumstances, makes sense, or whether it can get better. It is about addressing false and misleading claims made by the RFA, and exposing the shenanigans employed to exaggerate ethanol's benefits.

In fact, I am working with a group right now on a cellulosic ethanol process that I believe is revolutionary, and unlike anything the public has seen to date. So, I am not negative on ethanol in general. I just want claims to be grounded in reality.

the ENTIRE amount of money our government spends on supporting RandD and industry growth of alternative fuels could be doubled or trippled

I fully support strong funding levels for biofuels, and alternative fuels in general. I just oppose exaggerations about the relative merits.

Thanks Robert, I appreciate your responses here.

Even though RFA is supposed to be "on my side", since I raise corn amoung other crops, I agree that they make overly exaggerated claims, and think they would be far better off with a more realistic take.

I very much appreciate your insights, and just hope you remain objective and don't become as radical "anti-ethanol" as they are "pro-ethanol". Polarization accomplishes nothing.

The whole idea we will raise enough corn to supply food and significant fuel is ridiculous. We will raise enough corn for food, and the excess will get turned to fuel, which in my mind is much better than the over-production cycles agriculture has historically experienced. (And as long as oil stays reasonably high this will hold true, the ethanol subsidy simply increased the price range corn will trade in..)

I am even starting to realize that as a farmer, ethanol may actually be a bad direction to have went so strongly. High energy prices allow biomass to be competitive in soo many ways (think plastics/petro-based fibers) that I have wonder if hitching our industry's future to the ethanol bandwagon is a wise move. An interesting topic, but far more involved this reply or my mind can deal with...

Thanks again for your efforts

... but desperately needed, because the 4th law of thermodynamics is the law of unintended consequences :)

Seriously, dgrimm, your introspection is greatly appreciated, and your comments and those of RR's and others will long outlast those of someone like myself.

Best Hopes for reason and values in discussions, and timely hurricane preparedness

I am even starting to realize that as a farmer, ethanol may actually be a bad direction to have went so strongly.

It's feeding a backlash from the consumer all the way up to your neighbors, the lifestock farmers.  On top of this, it makes no sense on the thermodynamic level; it's going to end, the only question is when.

I suggest that you look into growing something like Miscanthus as buffer strips.  It requires little fertilizer (and may help capture your runoff) and it has potential either for fuel or for fodder.

Robert is dead right on this one. We've got presidential candidates roaming around the state and I want to get one in the corner with Ray the propane guy and a few others who work in the energy field - question asked would be something like:

"We know corn based ethanol is a scam. What are you going to do to help us get a feedstock that will be EROI positive and help us salvage the ethanol plants being built now?"

If I get this done I'll report back here with the details ...

Re: "I just want claims to be grounded in reality."

In reality no business decisions are made on the basis of net energy or on the EROEI religion. Decisions are made on market prices. As long as there is a monetary gain in making ethanol it is justified in our capitalistic system. What do you propose? An energy czar such as yourself to decide which forms of energy should be produced?

Transforming one form of energy to another is where the profit is because the market is inefficient in pricing, especially in pricing the energy value of corn. There is a slight of hand going on in this endless net energy, EROEI religion nonsense. Fossil fuel energy is what is being used to count the energy input but it is not being used to count the energy output. Energy is NOT in short supply and is NOT finite. Fossil fuel forms of energy are finite. Liquid fuel for transport is the most valuable and in the shortest supply. Therefore the problem is not that the yield on ethanol is inadequate, but that the problem is defined in a loaded way such that no answer can be arrived at except the one desired.

RR knows this and is constantly trying to frame the debate on his preferred anti-ethanol terms. Energy is not the problem. Fossil fuel, especially liquid forms for transport, IS the problem. Ethanol creates more liquid fuel supply, at a higher price, and that is what matters. Some people are willing to pay a higher price for increased supply just as with any other product. I repeat: Energy is NOT finite. Fossil fuels ARE finite. Transforming a less usable form (corn) into a more usable form (ethanol) is perfectly justified under our market system. Ethanol subsidies are just a partial effort to level the playing field because of all the de facto and real subsidies received by the oil industry.

Slight of hand maneuvers are rampant!
A few facts worth considering (on both sides)
1. Our energy usage is thoughtless and wasteful.
2. Legislation defies all logic.
3. Economics have to be the final measure.
4. Byproducts do count - asphalt as well as dried distiller grain.
5. Petroleum production is becoming harder as we deplete the easily tapped supplies.
6. Biofuel production will become somewhat easier as technology develops.
7. Carbon cycle is not in balance with large scale tapping and release of sequestered carbon.
8. Ethanol is not the single solution to our liquid fuel problem.
9. Conservation only delays the obvious.
10. More people spend their time criticizing than do creatively seeking solutions.

Next time you are daydreaming, ponder this - why would one truck loaded with corn, oil, lumber, or any other commodity be going North, and another South? Why do we build huge cooling towers to dissipate waste heat - yet burn fuel to create heat elsewhere? Why don't we design for total energy usage rather than partial use and 'waste' the rest?

But, if we did that, we would still argue if the byproducts should be considered in the energy balance statistics, and the environmentalists would still scream that the whole world is falling apart and the loss of the mighty snail darter will cause the end of civilization as we know it.

Gee, wish I could find a happy note here somewhere, but guess there is not a simple 'one size fits all' solution.

In reality no business decisions are made on the basis of net energy or on the EROEI religion. Decisions are made on market prices.

In theory, I agree with this. Return on Investment is a stricter criterion than EROEI in a non-subsidized case. It is impossible to be EROEI negative and make money unless there are 1) subsidies, or 2) production of a higher value product (gas from crude, ethanol from coal and natural gas).

However, the issue with corn-based ethanol is that there are massive subsidies, which makes the ROE calculation meaningless.

If we could remove the subsidies, stop the argument and see what happens, I think this would be great.

But as long as there are subsidies, there will be an argument.

I see u are working on cellulosic ethanol. Have you heard any recent news on butanol?

Re: Dinneen said ethanol novices

I'll try to make a comment later — I can't stop laughing

Well, OK, if you can't beat 'em, beat 'em up instead!

Have a good one, Robert.


Hey Dave,

Don't be a stranger around here.

I hope Dinneen takes me up on it, but I am not optimistic. He likes to engage in monologue. In a debate, he will have to defend his claims, and all of his "towel-headed terrorist" talk would be exposed for what it is.

Go Robert! You da Man! Hopefully Dinneen will take up the gauntlet you've flung. The fact that he and the RFA have tacitly acknowledged you is a big stride.

Unfortunately, however, this forum cannot match the vast sums being spent on lobbyists and the mass media by the likes of GM.

LiveGreen! GoYellow! Billy Fourwheeler really, really wants to hear that Iowa corn is gonna let him keep on truckin'.

Hans Noeldner
Oregon, WI

"Civilization is the presence of enlightened self-restraint"

Good idea on the debate, but suggest you add a fourth round - the "ad hominem round". That would be nothing but personal attacks and calling each other hitler or hugo chavez etc. That way Mr Dinneen could get it out of his system without cluttering up space in the content debate.

Energy Bulletin published August 13, 2007 an article on Peak Phosphorus.


The authors peg 1989 as the date of peak rock phosphate production, and demonstrate a Hubbert curve that shows production declining to insignificant levels by 2050. We all know the drill from looking at the same curve for oil.

Given the essential role of phosphorus in agriculture, it seems that irregardless of the EROEI for ethanol fuel, reliance on growing fuel is a bad move. Without adequate phosphorus, yields for modern agriculture will fall dramatically, and we will be right back where we are without oil.

It seems that nature, one way or another, just does not intend to provide for the out of balance human population levels.

If you want to limit the argument against ethanol to EROEI, then first look at the current EROEI ration of 6 to 1 for oil. That means a 500% return. Let us say that means we can have 500 farm tractors running on the profit from gasoline. Given the best, yet questionable EROEI, for ethanol then we get a 67% return or 67 farm tractors running on ethanol. That somehow does not seem to cut the mustard as a substitute, and if you look at the more likely EROEI of 6% then we only have 6 tractors running on ethanol compared to 500 on gasoline based on the comparative EROEI's. So what happens to those dependent of the food produced by the somewhere between 433 and 494 tractors that cannot be run by substituting ethanol for gasoline?

What we have in ethanol is yet another example of how reliance on government solutions will only hasten the disaster we face, as they direct scarce resources into solutions that no sane person would attempt. Were a solution reasonable, there would be not scarcity of those willing to risk their resources.

Good article - well written and well reasoned. The energy return is not there.

I don't even see what the attraction is - it won't run in most existing cars, and we won't be able to afford new ones once the dept tap is turned off. So I cannot see what purpose bio-ethanol serves other than as a pretend plan to fuel the car culture (and therefore as a smoke screen to obscure the awful truth about what is coming). Bio-diesel makes sense if restricted to fueling agricultural equipment, and perhaps some food transport.

When it comes to plant matter, there really isn't any "waste" to use to turn into fuel, there is just a percentage that we can get away with taking from the environment.

Ethanol runs in almost all modern cars. The overwhelming majority of manufacturers warranty engines for up to 10% ethanol content and could easily increase this to 20%.

Again, I don't support corn ethanol, but want to make sure we stick to the facts in this discussion. Points such as cars can't run on 100% ethanol, or ethanol will never replace 100% of current oil consumption are meaningless strawman arguments.


Ethanol runs in almost all modern cars.

This has been covered before.

Yes, I'm running 10% in my cars now. Going much more than this requires changes to the materials in much of the fuel system.

However, ignoring the materials issue, ethanol contains much less energy per volume of fuel than gasoline. Something like 30% less per volume of fuel? Further, to burn it most efficiently in an ICE requires changes in compression ratio and ignition timing, etc.

At best, one could design a retrofit kit for modern cars that replaced a large amount of the fuel system and re-programed the control computer, but you'd still have the compression ratio problem preventing efficient use of the fuel. And it would be very expensive to do even the fuel system mod.

Points such as cars can't run on 100% ethanol, or ethanol will never replace 100% of current oil consumption are meaningless strawman arguments.

Talk about strawmen - my point was that switching to ethanol requires REPLACING our auto fleet, not that one could not make a car that runs on ethanol (as you tried to twist it). Go out an run any non "flex fuel" vehicle on even E85, and see how it works. The latest "flex fuel" vehicles are only a half step towards an ethanol fueled vehicle - nothing more than changing the fuel system materials and reprogramming the engine control computer.

Bottom line - switching to ethanol fuel means replacing most of our cars. You should do some research before trying to "put me in my place".

The bottom line is that there is no real plan by anyone to "switch to ethanol", so in debunking it you are attacking a strawman.

Even Brazil, which may have the world's only successful ethanol program of any significance doesn't use ethanol above about 25%.

If the US were to utilize ethanol for 10-20% of its vehicle fleet, this would be an enormous step towards replacing declining crude resources.

Again, I do not thin corn-based ethanol is viable. But the barrier is the ability to run it in cars.

I had no intention to put you in your place. I don't even know where that is. I had just thught we were discussing theissues.

Since it was brought up in these comments, I wish to address the question of whether Cheney and the oil companies had a complicity in the invasion of Iraq. Please refer to these documents produced under the Freedom of Information Act.


Why in the world would they be divying Iraq up unless they planned to gain control of the country -- i.e. invasion and occupation?

Why in the world would they be divying Iraq up unless they planned to gain control of the country -- i.e. invasion and occupation?

Unless my eyes deceive me, I don't seen any American oil companies on either list. What I do see are companies that were doing business in Iraq prior to the invasion. So let me make sure I understand this. A list of non-American oil companies that were doing business in Iraq prior to the invasion somehow implicates Big Oil in the invasion?

I also note that they had maps of Saudi Arabian and United Arab Emirates (UAE) oil fields. Does this mean we are getting ready to invade them as well?

You guys are really reaching here. I thought someone was going to show me where Rex Tillerson made a speech denouncing Hussein and arguing for an invasion.

I am on the road traveling after this post, and I may not have Internet access for a few days. Replies may be delayed.

RR - travel well and safe. The world's bigger than the oil companies you want to argue about.

The American way of life is non-negotible

Hello TODers,

Although the Ethanol Debate is very important, maybe the looming, inextricably-linked FFs/NPK problem is the REAL DEBATE we need to focus on. Please recall my earlier posts, and the recent EB postings by Bart & Patrick Déry.

I was pondering the trapped Utah coal miners and the recent tragic 7.5 magnitude earthquake in Peru when it suddenly occured to me that the heavily geo-concentrated potash mines are underground too in many locations. A little googling later... and a disturbing picture begins to emerge that could suddenly have massive worldwide fertilizer NPK repercussions:

Standard Disclaimer: I am not a seismo-expert at all, therefore I welcome any expert-informed opinion But I would argue seismo-prediction is the least refined of all sciences due to inherently hidden forces and faults, and further more, an earthquake can release such stupendous, mind-boggling amounts of energy that the effects can easily be unforeseen and far-reaching. TODer BostonGeologist, are you out there? Do you know any seismo-people you could drag into TOD to write a keypost?

My comments interspersed inside links below inside brackets: [like this: BS]

Real human-caused earthquakes

We do have some good examples of human activities causing triggered quakes. One occurs where fluids are pumped out of or into the ground. Oil-producing districts, for example, or areas where toxic wastewater is pumped into deep disposal wells experience small shocks that are sometimes strong enough to feel. Another happens where new water reservoirs are created. The first famous example was after the Hoover Dam created Lake Mead in southern Nevada. Hundreds of earthquakes up to magnitude 5 happened in the decade after 1934.

Underground mines disrupt the natural stress state of underground rocks. The wall of a mine passage has all the weight of the rock above it pressing down, but none on the side facing the mine. Sometimes the wall bursts from the strain, spraying the passage with rock bits and destroying anything nearby. Seismograph records of rock bursts look just the same as earthquakes. The largest known rock burst happened in a German potash mine in 1989 and had a magnitude of 5.7. It demolished the mine openings and damaged most of the town of Volkershausen. [Yikes, do potash chemical processing plants above the mines run the risk of severe damage or toxic chemical release from a human-induced earthquakes?:BS] Another kind of mining-induced quake happens as the ground subsides into the mined-out space. These are smaller, gentler events than rock bursts.




Induced Seismicity - Non-Tectonic Earthquakes

A special German feature are big rock bursts, some of the strongest world wide. In the potash mining areas, some big collapses of mines, triggered by weak carnallititic columns, led to destroying seismic events. The maximum rock burst happened on March 13, 1989 with a sudden collapsed mine area of 6.8 km2, resulting in an event of ML = 5.6, an intensity of VIII-IX and a felt area of 140 km {87 miles} in radius. [yikes!--that areal size & intensity is a revelation to me: BS]

In the coal districts of the Ruhr and the Saar area, a lot of induced, mostly nonfelt, events are observed each year. Their maximum magnitudes are much lower than those in the potash mines. [I think this is due to the inherent different geo-layering and mineral structural strength differences of potash vs coal: BS]




In early 1982, a series of major Man-made earthquakes (magnitude 4.5-5.0) suddenly occurred in an area over a deep underground potash mine in Saskatchewan, Canada. By measuring the underground stress condition of the mine, the direct cause of the earthquake was disclosed. The cause was successfully eliminated by controlling the stress condition of the mine....This is made possible by the automatic stress measurement capability of the Stressmeter at a frequency up to 100 times per day. The significance of this approach is a possibility to save lives by time-prediction of a forthcoming major earthquake with accuracy in hours and minutes.


Truth, or famous last words? IMO, this is startling levels of human confidence and hubris, but I am certainly not expert enough to debunk these astounding claims. But please consider the graphics in this next link using a quick scroll through showing the extent of human caused underground changes in Sakatchewan:




Saskatoon, Saskatchewan - At the Allan potash mine near Saskatoon more than 800 km of tunnels run deep beneath the ground. The're down there because that's where the potash is, 1000 metres below the earth's surface, and it's this product that has probably been keeping your garden green. Saskatchewan has the largest reserve in the world of potash, which provides potassium for plant fertizers. The Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan, which has mines near Saskatoon, Regina, Esterhazy and Rocanville, is the world's largest fertilizer enterprise. The Esterhazy location is the largest producing potash mine in the world. Saskatchewan has the largest reserve in the world of both potash and uranium, accounting for about 1/3 of the world's production of both.


This blew my mind that they had 800 km or approx. 500 miles of underground excavation 1,000 meters down [approx 3,300 ft deep]. Picture an underground anthill on a huge human scale if you can! But that is nothing compared to MOSIAC K1 & K2 mines in Esterhazy, Saskatchewan:



The Esterhazy mine site, which opened in 1962, is the largest potash mining facility in the world. The mine spans a 20 by 30 kilometer area [12 by 19 mile area}approximately 3,100 feet below ground, and there are some 3,000 miles {4800 km} of tunnels within the mine.


This next link is a PDF, but page two shows just how geo-concentrated the ten potash mines are:


I have no idea of the total miles of deep underground tunnels in Saskatchewan, but it must be over 5,000 miles or approx 8,000 km. Would an tectonic earthquake cause a Canadian national mining disaster throughout this concentration of mines? Could a human-induced earthquake in just one mine seismically cascade over to the next mine, and so on?



Canada is the world's largest potash exporter, accounting for 43% of world trade. Canada exports potash to 40 countries. Our major markets are the US, China and Brazil.


Imagine if something bad happened removing 43% of the world's potash, plus a lot of other critical minerals needed for crops and industry. Should we stockpile fertilizers while we still can? As can be seen by the tremendous depth and length of these tunnels, this is a heavily energy dependent industry, and it also has to be shipped by truck or railway a long distance, then even further by ships. Peak FFs and NPK are inextricably linked, and as population grows and topsoils become further depleted: the demand for NPK can only grow until it cannot anymore. Tectonic quakes are beyond our control, but let's hope no human-induced earthquake in Saskatchewan occurs to quickly bring the world massive starvation within one or two growing seasons from crop failures.

Feel free to elaborate or refute, my fellow TODers, but recall my previous NPK postings, and the proposal to stockpile natgas as fertilizers to help bridge the transition ahead to relocalized permaculture. I hate being a fast-crash realist: it forces me to consider any and all thoughts of optimizing the coming Bottleneck Squeeze.

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

Hello TODers,

For some more info to consider on mining-induced seismicity in Sakatchewan, please consider this link below, then extrapolate to what is happening TWICE AS DEEP in Saskatoon, Canada:

Facing the Multiple Risks of Newer, Deeper Mines
Bob Shaw in Phx,Az Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

Hello TODers,

More mining-induced seismicity has killed and injured some of the Utah rescue miners:

Cave-in at Utah mine kills 3 rescue workers
At least 6 others injured on 11th day of effort to find trapped workers
Tragically gone bad, but yet the MSM makes no mention of the connection of coal deaths to our electricity.

If human-induced seismicity was more fully understood, then extrapolated to superdeep potash mining: then I believe very careful societal use and recycling of the elements NPK would be achieved. Time will tell.

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

Robert Rapier, a question for you:

As we all know, the EROI for ethanol from Brazilian sugar cane feedstock looks a lot better than US corn (~8, IIRC).

I am wondering if sorghum might not be a better feedstock than corn?

I am not talking here of the grain variety of sorghum, but rather the type that is grown for the syrup, which is then boiled down into molasses. We are familiar with that up here in the southern highlands, sorghum molasses is still being produced. Most people in the rest of the US are unfamiliar with it.

I suspect that the syrup one gets from sorghum is inferior to that one gets from sugar cane, and that the EROI for sorghum to ethanol would be inferior to that of Brazilian cane sugar. But might it not look considerably better than that for US corn to ethanol?

One advantage of switching to a sorghum feedstock, if we must insist on ethanol at all, is that sorghum can pretty much be grown anywhere that corn can. Here in the southern highlands, one can occasionally see corn and sorghum growing adjacent to each other.

Another person had posted a concern about not wasting the ethanol production infrastructure that was already in place. It would seem to me that this same infrastructure would work just fine for sorghum feedstocks with only some minor modifications.

If we must have ethanol at all, it would seem to me that doing it in a way that at least has an indisputably positive EROI would be preferable.

Here is a table that includes sweet sorghum along with cane and corn. Getting more crops per year seems to be part of what is going on with sorghum. In Maryland, folks use hulless barley in the winter so I would think you could do sorghum in the summer, barley in the winter and beat the gal/acre for corn, though you might double crop barley with corn as well. One of the advantages of the hulless barley is that it helps with erosion since it acts as a winter cover.


Thanks for the link. It looks like sweet sorghum definitely warrants further research. In most of the temperate US, only one crop/year is possible, which suggests an ethanol yield about half that of sugar cane. Given that raising sweet sorghum requires low inputs compared to corn, might we just take a wild stab at it and guess that maybe we would be looking at an EROI of somewhere around 4? That is no reason to pop open the champaign corks, but it would sure look a lot better than ~1 for corn ethanol.

If this is anywhere even close to being true, then all the acreage going to corn for ethanol should be going to sweet sorghum instead. It is tragic, if not downright criminal, that this isn't being made to happen ASAP.

I looked a little further. Sorghum projects get about as far as ferementation, but then they are stuck because they don't have the still they need. Sorghum starts to rot right from harvest so you need to ferment it quick. That mean on the farm, say in a trench silo. But, once fermented, you have mostly water (as with anything) and so you need a still to boost the ethanol content. But the farms don't have this. Seems to me that a solar still to get up to 20% ethanol would be the thing that is needed to send the stuff on to a regular distillery that can finish the job. That is still a lot of water weight though. Alternatively, processing down to syrup would deal with the water and produce a shipable product. Reverse osmosis might turn out to be the best method for this, since the water output may have secondary uses. Maple sap is already treated this way and I have noticed a slight reduction in price for syrup over the years, or rather the price has stayed kind of stable while most other things go up.

The way I've seen sugaring (or rum) done with cane is that the processing is all done close to the fields while the corn ethanol model is putting distilleries in cattle country because the corn moves dry so the wet mash can be used in feed lots. This fits with corn harvest methods aleady so it is probably easier to implement.


Around here in the mountains, sorghum is a small scale process. As soon as the canes are harvested they are run through a crank press (often with a mule providing the power!), and then the liquid is boiled down to molasses.

It does sound like there are challenges in scaling up. Of course, I'm sure there were similar challenges in scaling up sugar cane as well.

Do you know what fuel is used to boil the sap? I wonder if it makes any sense to adopt the practices involved in maple syrup production? Might even have an equipment coop since the seasons are different. When I've done syruping, we've taken the stuff we needed to the trees so I imagine at least some reverse osmosis setups are movable though we always boiled back in the day. Using apple wood gives a great extra flavor.


It is always done outdoors over a wood fire. Wood not particular, molasses is not the delicate-tasting product that maple syrup is. I'm not sure if reverse osmosis would work or not.

The main point for reverse osmosis is to save fuel. For an energy crop this is important while for a specialty food crop it is not such a big deal.

Go get'em Tiger!

Thanks for investing so much personal energy in countering the rent-seeking hokum put out by the ethanol people.

You're doing a fine job and have my respect and admiration.

Thanks, Robert,

Bob Dinneen's "begin to help fuel a nation" is pretty scary.

I hope Rolling Stone will report on the debate.

Good work as usual Robert.
Two comments:

1)The debate whether ethanol is energy positive or negative is not the real issue. There is way too much focus on this. I think it originated from the Argonne and USDA reports, claiming that it is both energy positive AND renewable somehow make it a great fuel choice. What NEEDS to be being debated is not the absolute energy yield but its comparison to what its replacing. The net energy of gasoline is in the neighborhood of 8:1, vs ethanol at .2:1 - it is an order of magnitude less - the more we replace of substance A with substance B, the less amount of energy available to do work for society. In effect, the energy balance should be used as a societal energy budgeting tool. What would be the best use for all that natural gas, land, and diesel? Corn is probably near the worst idea.

2)As head of the Renewable Fuel Asssociation, which gets large funding from corporate agriculture, why would Mr. Dineen write anything other than what he did? The facts are not on his side unfortunately, but its his job to defend renewable fuels - wide boundary consequences be damned.

I hope he takes you up on your debate offer, though I doubt he will. I wouldn't.

I read the Rolling Stone article and found the author guilty of the same offense as others with an ulterior motive; he cherry picked numbers that supported ethanol as a poor transportation fuel and ignored numbers that contradict his assumptions. Dineen’s shrill, hand-waving arguments for grain based ethanol aside, Goodell discounted ethanol as a viable fuel regardless of the source of material or the technology used. I’m surprised Robert Rapier has not pointed out the flaws with the Goodell article. Along those same lines I’d like to see Robert’s expert analysis of David Pimental’s numbers on the energy balance with corn ethanol. In actuality, no one I know thinks that ethanol from grain is a particularly energy efficient thing to do and DOE reports indicate that ethanol from grain in this country has reached it’s peak.

All these arguments will be rendered moot when the 932 solicitation winners have operational plants on the ground and some real numbers on their process efficiencies become available. These plants will be sited across the country and will convert various lignocellulosic biomasses to ethanol. Substrates include urban woody waste, corn stover, wheat straw, and forest harvest residue. TODer’s that want to get some good info on DOE’s efforts in the area of transportation fuels from lignocellulosic biomass should go to the websites maintained by NREL, Oak Ridge, and INL. In particular look at the 30 X 30 document and the Billion Ton study.