Monday, January 02, 2017

How Quickly They Forget

Recently brought to my attention: a 2014 article on, by James Conca:

It can power your car or your body.
The article points out that corn ethanol has no environmental ("green") advantages over petroleum with regard to emissions. Not only does it require you to burn more of it to release the same energy as petrol, but the production relies on a fermentation process that of itself releases additional "greenhouse gasses".

The article goes through a lot of math; and for the most part it's pretty good math. But in my assessment, the math isn't the most important thing.


Tasty, and it can run an engine
What's not addressed in this article is that the initial big push for creating corn ethanol in the first place had nothing whatsoever to do with the environment... at least, not in the public consciousness. Now, I'm no chemist. But I was in high school in 1979. One of my projects in my senior year was creating bio-fuel out of cane sugar. As rum goes, it wasn't terrible (true). Also, it could run a lawnmower for a short time before ruining it, so the "proof" (pun intended) was good enough to get me an 'A' grade. And I do remember why I did it.

It was done in the 1970s in the wake of the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 and the later oil crisis of 1979. Fuel efficiency and alternative fuels were heavily pushed at a time when we were told of scientific predictions of a global freeze. It's fashionable today for climate change enthusiasts to argue that 1970s concerns about global cooling were a "myth" by noting that the numerous popular articles of the time were not peer reviewed and therefore don't count. This ahistorical thinking ignores the fact that global cooling was the broadly disseminated view to which the public was exposed and upon which they made decisions. Even if there were a broad consensus of climatologists in the 1970s who quietly argued for eventual global warming, their views didn't make it into the public consciousness at that time, and had non-measurable effect on the subject of alternative fuels, which were championed not because the technologies were "green", but in order to reduce dependency on foreign sources of energy.

NOTE that I'm not arguing for or against climate change. This isn't about climate change. It's about the information that the people of the 1970s used to make decisions. They used the information available to them then... not now... and what they saw then was this:

A decade of expectations:
RadioTimes (Nov '74), TIME (Apr '77), TIME (Dec '73)
TIME (Dec '79), Science & Mechanics (Dec '69)

Often vilified, but still history. The point is, people make
decisions based on the information they have.
What people saw then gave them no reason to worry about CO2 levels. Even the EPA was far more concerned with smog, which was more a quality-of-life issue then than now. Retractions printed decades after the fact are irrelevant to the current discussion.

Furthermore, although peak oil was and is a valid concern... someday it seems likely that the wells will run dry... It wasn't the case that ethanol was pushed in the 1970s because there was an actual imminent "shortage of oil". There were a number of other more compelling reasons, all of which were financial and political.

In 1971, America's reduced production was as a result of production capacity. The oil industry had been "skating" without making new investments, thus foreign imports had been steadily increasing. These were decreased by OPEC in the wake of the Yom Kippur War: the US was being punished by Arab-dominated OPEC for being allies of Israel. As a result, in 1973-4, pump prices that had been hovering around $0.36/gallon jumped up to over $.50/gallon overnight. And we were stuck with it. As was repeatedly pointed out at the time, new refineries take years to build.

In 1979, the fuel prices were as a result of decreased production resulting from the Iranian Revolution that deposed Shah Pahlavi. That pushed pump prices to over $1.00/gallon. Pumps weren't even made to register prices that high, and a leading "1" had to be painted or taped to the pumps. Even if Iranian production hadn't tanked, the new regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini would not have been eager to sell the oil to us... they were holding 50 US hostages at the time, taken from our embassy, as they blamed the US for providing sanctuary to the former Shah.

The further push for ethanol in 2007-8 once again had the impetus of rising fuel prices. Of course, this time, "green technology" was added to the list of rationale. I think that rationale is spurious.

Ethanol was initially pushed as a means of lowering dependence on foreign oil. It provides a renewable resource in place of an exhaustible fossil fuel. The "green" angle was tacked on years later. And hey, why not? Corn is a growing, natural, living thing, right? It made intuitive sense that it would be green in every sense, if you didn't care to ponder the math. This is why you see pictures of sunshine and corn cobs on fuel pumps without any mention of fermentation and distillation and chemistry. This is about as informative as putting Tony the Tiger on a box of Kellogg's Corn Flakes, and serves the same purpose.

It's only when you do some chemical accounting that you realize there really is no such thing as a free lunch. You only get out what you put into it: every calorie must be accounted for. The fact remains that biofuels were less efficient simply wasn't a major concern for those who were more concerned with the immediate choke on foreign oil sources and the expected eventual achievement of peak oil production. The word 'sustainable' wasn't used; 'renewable' was.

the carbon dioxide cycle in ethanol production
via Researchgate 
It has always been known that ethanol production, whether from corn, or any other biomass, requires the release of copious quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Only a part of it is released when burned. The bulk is released during fermentation and during harvesting and processing. This carbon dioxide is chemically the same no matter the source. It will stimulate plant growth no matter the source. Concern over "carbon emissions" is not something that can be addressed with ethanol. Its "green" status is a rather effective selling ploy. Despite that, ethanol must be economically competitive on its own merits. Social engineering is not required, and as with any product it should adhere to truth in advertising.

So you won't find me agreeing with this headline, although I broadly agree with the article itself. Corn ethanol is NOT "of no use". It has a very specific usefulness, in which climate control plays a negligible part. Rather, it is an alternative fuel supply, closely compatible with existing petroleum technologies, that can be used in the event that petrol sources run dry.


The Forbes article is from April of 2014. Isn't it strange how it still feels like "news" because the underlying facts have not been broadly publicized? Instead we still see friendly, happy sunshine logos on fuel tanks and propaganda from people who really just don't like uncomfortable math. This is marketing, not science.

As to why I'm responding to it now... this blog is about stuff that interests me. 'Nuff said.

  1. Memory. I was there.
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