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Saturday, February 12, 2005

Disposable Idiot

A local self-styled "taxpayer revolt" radio show presented for once an interesting topic. Although it usually consists of "get out of my yard, you dang kids" style rants, on one segment the host1 switched gears into a discussion of corn-based ethanol as a fuel replacement. He apparently chose this topic because of a proposed Minnesota law to maintain a minimum 20% ethanol content at consumer gasoline pumps, backed by a favored Republican governor.

Typically, ethanol topics bring out the libertarian side of human nature; opinions expressed usually include "it gunks up my car", "mom, apple pie, and gasoline", and "hippie earth-firsters". True to form, the dialog occasionally veered toward this territory but a serious undercurrent crept into the discussion, deep enough to undercut many of the traditional conservative "values" that the host had previously ranted about. This included admission of the importance of secular mass transit and amoral energy conservation principles.

As a smart move, the host brought in David Pimental of Cornell University, who has studied ethanol energy efficiency for several decades. I don't know much about Pimental's political leanings, but he kept responses mostly apolitical, preferring to talk only in terms of energy return. He covered ground much like this:
from PeakOil.com
I'll quote Richard Heinberg at p. 156 of The Party's Over:
Richard Heinberg wrote:
Cornell University professor David Pimental, who has performed a thorough net-energy analysis of ethanol, found that an acre of corn ultimately yields, on average, 328 gallons of ethanol. It takes 1000 gallons of fossil fuel to plant, grow and harvest this quantity of corn. Additional energy must be used in distilling the ethanol. In sum, 131,000 BTU are needed to make one gallon of ethanol, which has an energy value of only 77,000 BTU. This gives ethanol an EROEI of roughly 0.59, meaning a 41 percent net loss of energy.

Pimental definitely leans toward the commonly held opinion that ethanol as a net consumes more energy than it consumes. This conflicts a bit with others that claim by incorporating solar and using it for other than automotive applications you can bring up the EROIE as described in a Pimental rebuttal.

The most fascinating aspect of the radio show segment pertained to how the conservative host kept his eyes glued on only one thing -- to halt the ethanol madness. I could not believe that when Pimental mentioned in passing that the U.S. has used up 90% of its recoverable oil, the host did not respond and continued his ethanol-only line of questioning, clearly conveying that he believed that petroleum will continue to meet our needs. (Even bringing up the Arctic National Wildllife Refuge as some spectacular oil asset. Philalethes points out that Bush and his trusty budget believe the same fiction.)

In the end, I heard not one acknowledgement of the reality of oil depletion.

Conclusion: Ethanol subsidy discussions will work as a stealth issue to eventually corner the right-wing into admitting that we cannot contine as an one-trick-pony oiligarchy. Although likely not intentional, this little political pork-barrel of ethanol will result in a polarizing effect more extreme than any issue I can think of. When they start to add two and two together and find that we do not have any energy strategy and that ethanol lacks clothes, we will see some heads explode.

Given the fact that a significant fraction of citizens still believe that Iraq had something to do with 9/11, many probably also believe that conglomerates such as Archer Daniel Midlands can provide an endless source of energy for the future (commercials don't lie!). The difference being that the right-wing think tanks will continue to generate support for the former but are starting to show cracks in their belief in the latter.

1 David Strom, president of The Taxpayer's League think-tank, Ethanol Press Release


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