June 12, 2006


Addicted to Bad Data: Getting the Facts Straight on Ethanol (The New Atlantis, Spring 2006)

[Economist Kevin] Hassett’s sharpest line of attack [on President Bush's push for ethanol] was over the so-called “energy balance” of ethanol—that is, the difference between the energy produced by a fuel and the energy required to produce it. Hassett argued that ethanol’s energy balance is negative—that ethanol actually wastes energy, belying all claims that producing the biofuel serves our environmental or national-security interests. He writes:

A recent careful study by Cornell University’s David Pimentel and the University of California at Berkeley’s Tad Patzek added up all the energy consumption that goes into ethanol production. They took account of the energy it takes to build and run tractors. They added in the energy embodied in the other inputs and irrigation. They parsed out how much is used at the ethanol plant. Putting it all together, they found that it takes 29 percent more energy to make ethanol from corn than is contained in the ethanol itself.

While Hassett admits that “some other authors have disputed these findings,” he says “they invariably come up with more favorable calculations by excluding some of the costs.”

Well, actually, not so. Professors Pimentel and Patzek have published several studies on this subject, and these have been thoroughly and repeatedly debunked in the scientific literature, in government reports from the Department of Energy and Department of Agriculture, in congressional testimony, and elsewhere. (Much of this information is collected on the website of the Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center.) Reputable scientists have publicly called the work of Pimentel and Patzek “shoddy,” “unconvincing,” and lacking in basic scientific transparency. The most recent dissection of their claims, appearing in the journal Science in January 2006, found that their results depended upon “some input data that are old and unrepresentative of current [ethanol-production] processes, or so poorly documented that their quality cannot be evaluated.”

One of the most harsh, clear, and forceful critiques of the Pimentel-Patzek studies has come from Bruce E. Dale, a professor of chemical engineering at Michigan State University. Among the many errors Dale has identified is that Pimentel’s work uses figures for corn yields that are too low, and figures for the amount of energy required to produce ethanol that are too high, all because they are seriously outdated. Dale also found that Pimentel’s work has wrongly assumed that all corn is irrigated when only about 15 percent of it is (resulting in exaggerated energy costs for the irrigation of ethanol-producing corn), and that Pimentel failed to assign any energy credit for the animal feed produced as a byproduct of ethanol production. Not only does Professor Dale argue that the energy balance for producing ethanol is significantly positive, but he has also pointed out that the balance of liquid fuel is enormously favorable: more than six gallons of ethanol are produced for every gallon of gasoline or diesel fuel expended in the process. That is a much more relevant metric for ethanol policy, as Dale explained in a 2005 debate with Patzek and Pimentel hosted by the National Corn Growers Association: “We do not need energy per se; we need the services energy provides.... The U.S. has lots of coal and natural gas, but they don’t work in the gas tank. They have the wrong energy quality.”

So how could two such distinguished professors be so wrong? The answer would surely horrify Hassett had he bothered to look into the matter. Patzek, the Berkeley professor, is an accomplished geoengineer with extensive ties to the oil industry; he seems only to have been writing about biofuels for the last few years. But Pimentel, the Cornell professor emeritus, is an entomologist who has been complaining about ethanol since the early 1980s. And he’s not just an opponent of ethanol production. He is also an opponent of beef production. He is a critic of the use of pesticides and opposes much of modern agriculture. He is highly critical of pet cats and dogs. He’s against immigration—both legal and illegal—and ran for a position on the board of the liberal Sierra Club in 2004 on a platform calling for a halt to all immigration. (He was defeated.)

And then there are babies. Professor Pimentel believes there should be fewer of them. Far fewer. According to Pimentel, the Earth’s “carrying capacity” is 2 billion people. The world’s population needs an “adjustment” down to that number, he wrote in the inaugural issue of the journal Environment, Development and Sustainability, and he called for a “democratically determined population control policy” requiring “that each couple produces an average of 1.5 children” to make that happen by the year 2010. (The United States population, he says, should be reduced to under 200 million people.)

Politics surely makes strange bedfellows. But it’s especially strange, and more than a little disappointing, to see Kevin Hassett—a pro-growth economist—quoting the discredited science of a radical Malthusian like David Pimentel. Surely, there are problems with America’s ethanol subsidy program and unsettled questions about the ultimate value of ethanol compared with other potential sources of energy. But it is foolish to allow a general opposition to subsidies to morph into an anti-scientific ideology, getting seduced by shoddy data that support the claims that one wants to make anyway.

It's hardly strange to find someone who's defending the current gasoline based system in league with the anti-human.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 12, 2006 3:50 PM

It's hardly strange to find Orrin drawing a moral equivalence between gasoline and abortion.

Posted by: Bryan at June 12, 2006 4:10 PM

If you could grind the babies up and use them for fuel Planned Parenthood would run a string of service stations.

Posted by: oj at June 12, 2006 4:14 PM

Irrelevant! If ifs and buts were candy and nuts it would be Christmas every day! Stick to the facts at hand, if you please, counselor.
You're basically doing the old Judd trick of conflating what you perceive to be two evils. You don't like cars and you don't like abortion. Therefore, people who like cars must also like abortion. Sweet Jesus, a long-haired leaping gnome like myself can sport the logic holes in that argument.
Just because you don't like it doesn't make it evil. You are not the sole arbiter of good and evil on Earth.

Posted by: Bryan at June 12, 2006 4:57 PM

Ethanol runs cars.

Posted by: oj at June 12, 2006 5:18 PM

Is it still competitive with gasoline if we apply the Federal gas tax to it that is currently waived for Ethanol? My guess would be no.

Posted by: Pete at June 12, 2006 5:30 PM

Ethanol is just a McGuffin. It's all about hatred of cars.

Posted by: Bryan at June 12, 2006 6:15 PM

Hatred of cars and breaking our dependence on oil are separable issues.

Posted by: oj at June 12, 2006 6:27 PM

The important thing with ethanol is what to do with all the suff not turned into ethanol. Most of the plant is just waste.

If ethanol or methane or whatever is so darn cheap and abundant why is it not already here? The answer is that oil is still pretty cheap even at $100 a barrel.

Posted by: abc123 at June 12, 2006 7:23 PM

The important thing with ethanol is what to do with all the suff not turned into ethanol. Most of the plant is just waste.

If ethanol or methane or whatever is so darn cheap and abundant why is it not already here? The answer is that oil is still pretty cheap even at $100 a barrel.

Posted by: abc123 at June 12, 2006 7:24 PM

Yes, we have to use taxes to hike the cost of gas.

Posted by: oj at June 12, 2006 7:44 PM

And yet there's no ethanol in Europe, which has much higher gas prices.

Posted by: David Cohen at June 12, 2006 8:07 PM

Only America is efficient and wealthy enough to burn food.

Posted by: oj at June 12, 2006 8:26 PM

We're also the only ones efficient and wealthy enough to light our farts with $20 bills.

Posted by: joe shropshire at June 12, 2006 9:49 PM

And if it would power cars we'd do so.

Posted by: oj at June 12, 2006 10:05 PM