Biofuel Myths

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1) The environmental impact of oil is greater than that of crop-based biofuels

2) Deforestation has dropped in the years since ethanol came into production

3) There are billions of acres of idle cropland across the world that are unused

4) The variety of corn used for ethanol is not the same as that used for food

5) Shills for Big Oil have infiltrated Internet comment fields

6) Biofuel is made from surplus soy oil and corn that would be wasted if not used for fuel

7) Biofuels are not the sole cause of food price increases

8) Corn ethanol saved Americans $48 billion in 2008 alone

9) Corn ethanol can help make America energy independent

10) Researchers publishing science not supportive of corn ethanol are hacks

11) Corn ethanol will facilitate introduction of cellulosic ethanol

12) The box of Cornflakes argument

13) Food processors are really behind high food prices

14) The Oil Subsidy argument

15) It takes more energy to make corn ethanol than it returns

16) The distiller's grains byproduct replaces the corn used to make ethanol

1) The environmental impact of oil is greater than that of crop-based biofuels

Globally, about 98% of all liquid fuels come from oil, but on a gallon per gallon basis, the environmental damage done by crop-based biofuels dwarfs that of oil and the more that is produced, the worse this impact will get. A recent study in the journal Nature points out that several planetary boundaries are being exceeded as a result of fossil fuel combustion and agriculture. Modern industrial agriculture turns out to be a much bigger problem that fossil fuels, although it is wholly dependent on them as well.

The Gulf oil spill is an unprecedented calamity. Every environmental group worth its salt has fought against offshore drilling for decades, just as they are now resisting government support of corn ethanol. Will they continue to lose this struggle as well with similar results? Spills like this may be rare events but offshore drilling will guarantee that they will happen. On the other hand, the nitrogen putrefaction of the Gulf of Mexico is a chronic, constant, annual event and will only get worse as corn acreage is expanded for ethanol.

The Valdez spill and Canadian tar sands are often held up as examples of damage done by oil. No doubt that these are ecological calamities. But when you look at the total surface area of the planet impacted, they are miniscule compared to the thousands of square miles impacted by a very small percentage of crop-based biofuels.

The oil spill impacted a thin strip of coastline. Assuming the impacted coastline was a thousand miles long and a mile wide, you have 1000 square miles. In 2008, corn ethanol usurped at least 25,000 square miles (20% of our corn crop) of carbon sinks and helped to swell the Gulf of Mexico dead zone to 8,800 square miles. Not mentioned are the forest, peat, and grassland carbon sinks literally going up in smoke thanks to palm, cane, soy, canola and a host of other crops being grown thanks to government mandates for crop-based biofuels. The spill impact is also lessening with time whereas the impacts of crop-based biofuels are growing with time as government mandates expand use.

From Nature ( ):

"…In 2001 and 2003, Trustee scientists surveyed the extent of remaining subsurface oil residues on Prince William Sound shoreline that were oiled in 1989. Pits were dug at randomly selected sites on these previously oiled shorelines. In 2001, in 4,249 randomly selected sites, they found that 91.8% had no oil residues, Similarly in 2003, in 1,140 randomly selected sites, they found that 94.7% had no oil residues…."

From the NYT:

"…In January, a grand jury indicted a Missouri businessman in the discharge [of biodiesel waste], which killed at least 25,000 fish and wiped out the population of fat pocketbook mussels, an endangered species…."

2) Deforestation has dropped in the years since ethanol came into production

The Amazon and other rainforests, wetlands, and grasslands around the world continue to get smaller and smaller every year. How much is destroyed varies in any given year. While it is true that the Amazon and Cerrado have recently been destroyed somewhat slower than in the past, it isn't because of biofuels. To suggest that biofuel expansion has caused destruction rates to slow is ludicrous. Deforestation is caused by all kinds of human activity. If the destruction has slowed it would have slowed even more without the added demand of biofuels. From the following sources:

2007 fires in the Amazon

"…The area of rainforest in the process of being deforested — razed but not yet cleared — surged in the Brazilian Amazon during 2008…"

"…24,932 square kilometers of Amazon forest was damaged between August 2007 and July 2008, an increase of 10,017 square kilometers -- 67 percent -- over the prior year. The figure is in addition to the 11,968 square kilometers of forest that were completely cleared, indicating that at least 36,900 square kilometers of forest were damaged or destroyed during the year

"…The surge in activity is attributed to the sharp rise in commodity prices over the past two years. While grain and meat prices have plunged since March, higher prices have provided an impetus for converting land for agriculture and pasture. Accordingly, the burning season of 2007 (July-September) saw record numbers of fires in some parts of the Amazon as farmers, speculators, and ranchers set vast areas ablaze to prepare for the 2008 growing season

"…U.S. consumption of corn to supply domestic ethanol production created a global corn frenzy which drove up prices and spurred expansion of croplands around the planet. Two examples are Brazil and Laos. Brazil increased production of soy to essentially make up for soy acreage lost to corn in America. In Laos (pictured), returns from corn were so high that Vietnamese traders pressured national park officials to open up protected areas in parts of the country to corn fields. They refused.

"…falling grain prices early in the year coincided with a sharp slowing in deforestation. As food and fuel prices peaked through late 2007 and early 2008, it appeared that Amazon deforestation would climb to levels not seen since 2005 — more than 15,000 square kilometers were expected to be lost. The sudden downturn changed all that. When the final numbers came in for 2008, they showed that deforestation only increased a modest 3.8% to 11,968 square kilometers…."


3) There are billions of acres of idle cropland across the world

The vast majority of the planet's landmass consists of desert and mountain ranges. The definition of cropland is sketchy but clearly farmers have a hard enough time finding profit even on rich, well-watered fertile land. Farmers prefer to use good land as opposed to degraded land and you can't force them to do otherwise. This study documents that farmers prefer to make new cropland out of razed forests instead of attempting to get things to grow on degraded land:

"…All told, 80% of new fields had been converted from forests. (Most of the rest is shrubland.) It's not known how much of new farmland is being used for biofuels, but Gibbs estimates it could be anywhere from a third to two-thirds. Unless biofuels are planted in pastures or degraded lands, she said, "we're going to be burning rainforest in our gas tanks…."

The next time you hear someone say, "The government pays farmers not to grow more food!" Explain to them that this is called the Conservation Reserve Program (or CRP). Essentially, the government rents marginal farmland (wetlands, hilly land, etc) from farmers for something like $40 an acre to keep it out of production, to keep farmers from trying to make more money by planting more crops (thus depressing prices). Although not part of the original intent, this land over the years has returned to the wild and is acting as a giant carbon sink soaking up 15 to 30 percent of America's CO2. It has also provided a great deal of wildlife habitat. By putting all of this back under the plow we would destroy what has become a giant carbon sink.

From this study:

"….Our analysis suggests that maintaining land in set-aside programs and allocating more agricultural lands to them would have a greater net GHG savings than having the same plots under corn ethanol production for at least four decades…."

I adapted the following chart to demonstrate that unless something changes the rate of biofuel growth, the poor of the world along with our biosphere and biodiversity are going to be in deep doo-doo (as if they aren't already).

4) The variety of corn used for ethanol is not the same as that used for food

The idea here is to convince you that the corn used for food is not the same corn as that being used for fuel. The type of corn used for things like canned corn and corn on the cob may be different, but the corn fed to livestock, which is processed into food for people (eggs, dairy, and meat) by the livestock's metabolism is the same corn fed to biofuel refineries. This is analogous to feeding raw grain to a bakery where it is processed into bread. So, corn fed to livestock is still part of the human food chain. 70 percent of the corn fed to a biofuel refinery is lost to the human food chain. The remainder becomes distiller's grains (the leftovers that can be fed to cattle).

5) Shills for Big Oil have infiltrated Internet comment fields

I have seen no evidence of this. On the other hand I am constantly running into Big Biofuel vested interests in comment fields. Take a look at these two recent encounters in the comments in this New York Times article and this one as well (executive director of New Fuels Alliance).

Big Oil has no motivation to do that. Companies that look and act exactly like oil companies will eventually control all liquid fuel production. It is intensely naïve to think that Big Biofuel executives are different in any way from Big Oil executives. This isn't a battle of good against evil. It's about money.


"…Shell currently buys, trades, stores, blends and distributes these conventional biofuels. We are the world's largest distributor – more than 5 billion litres in 2007 – and continue to build our capability…."

The following quote is from an environmentalist I know personally. He wishes to remain anonymous to protect himself from Big Biofuel:

"…Shell is the "largest distributor" of biofuels -- not in the United States yet, perhaps, but in the World. Vertically integrated oil companies are in the business of producing, transporting, blending, storing and distributing liquid fuels. Rest assured, they will do everything they can not to be shut out of the liquid-fuels market. Afraid of competition from biofuels? They are positioning themselves to become the main suppliers of them.

Biofuel boosters, oil companies and the manufacturers of big personal vehicles (SUVs, pick-up trucks) may be bickering siblings, but they are ultimately on the same side in this debate: all three, naturally, want to see the continuance of the internal combustion engine as the dominant mode of transport, and of the liquid fuels that power it. What they fear is a deep contraction in demand, or a radical change in transport, such as through electrification.

Should we be at all surprised, therefore, that the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition sells a bumper sticker enabling drivers of E85 vehicles (most of which are equipped with 4.5 L or larger engines) to proudly proclaim to the world that they are an "Ethanol Guzzler"?

All this posturing by biofuel fanatics that they are Davids against the Big Oil's Goliath is simply smoke and mirrors -- a ruse to keep inquisitive people from pulling back the curtain and seeing what the two really get up to once the floodlights are turned off.

The oil industry’s core business is marketing liquid fuels. It is a myth that ethanol is making inroads into the dominance of the oil companies and that the oil industry universally opposes biofuels. At most, they oppose biofuels they don’t control. The ethanol scam is about keeping the internal combustion and liquid-fuel machines going. The biofuels industry DEPENDS on the distribution infrastructure of the oil industry, and the fact that 200+ million vehicles run on liquid fuels. What really scares Big Oil is deep conservation, and the prospect of electrified transport…"

 It's what they do and they don't care what that liquid fuel is made from as long as it is profitable, and if biofuels are never going to be profitable, they should not exist. Pop the hood on your car and look at that internal combustion engine. It throws away 80% of the energy stored in your gas tank. What oil company (or any liquid fuel purveyor) wouldn't want to continue propagating that old technology?

From GAS2.0:

"…For the 2009 model year, the best rated car running on E85 in the United States was the Chevrolet HHR, with a United States EPA gasoline mileage rating of 26 miles per gallon, and an E85 rating of only 19 miles per gallon – and that’s the best from Detroit with mileage on all other U.S. flexfuel vehicles being worse…"

The Union of Concerned Scientists found that the flex fuel loophole increased oil consumption by over a billion gallons.

6) Biofuel is made from surplus soy oil and corn that would be wasted if not used for fuel

Few people understand the definition of crop surplus. There is no dumping of corn or soybeans into landfills. They are temporarily stored until a buyer is found but they all get sold eventually. This is the definition of a crop surplus. Agriculture strives to create a crop surplus. The failure to produce a marketable surplus is the literal definition of crop failure. A surplus is a form of insurance. It is a good thing that farmers have always sought. Without a surplus, really bad things happen when a crop fails, as they are wont to do. All corn and soybeans grown all go into the human food chain in some form someplace in the world …or into biofuel.

People also confuse the term crop export with crop surplus. During the 2008 food crisis some countries banned the export of food because people outside of the country were able to pay more for it than the people inside the country.

They also confuse the term surplus with reserve. In seven of the past nine years human beings have consumed more grain than has been grown. Where would we be without grain surpluses/reserves? Humanity is presently on average consuming more grain than it grows (source USDA):

The decision to plant soy by a farmer is driven by the price he hopes to get, which is driven by the "combined price" of soy meal and soy oil on the world market. Soy oil is not a "waste" product. It is a co-product, also often called a byproduct. It is highly valued food oil traded on futures markets. If the price of soy oil is very high (as it was in the summer of 2008) a farmer may choose to plant soy in hopes of getting a good price for his beans. It was this price signal that caused farmers to plow up carbon sinks (see myth # 3).

Likewise, distiller's grains are a byproduct of corn ethanol. So, nobody plants corn for the explicit purpose of making corn ethanol either. 70% of a corn kernel is lost to the human food chain when using it to make ethanol, leaving 30% for cattle feed, which is converted by cattle into human food (meat and dairy--see myth # 4).

Bushel of corn:

    1. 70% turned into ethanol
    2. 30% turned into livestock feed

Bushel of soy:

    1. 80% turned into livestock feed
    2. 20% turned into biodiesel

7) Biofuels are not the sole cause of food price increases

This argument is of course a strawman. Nobody claims biofuels were the sole cause of food price increases. They exacerbated the increases just as they exacerbate land use change. They would not be as bad without biofuels.

It's complex but this article does a very good job of explaining food prices as does this one_.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently reported that food stamps and child nutrition programs are expected to cost up to $900 million more this year because of increased ethanol use.

If you assume roughly 28 million people are using food stamps and that roughly 17 million children receive lunch assistance at school 9 months out of the year, you can extrapolate that $900 million number to the American populace, which is roughly 307 million. Doing so, I find that Americans are paying roughly 9 billion dollars in extra food costs thanks to corn ethanol. You can download the spreadsheet here.

The sister argument to the above is that biofuels played only a minor role in food price increases. Never mind that the word "minor" is arbitrary. Is $8 billion minor? And we can't ignore the hundreds of millions of poor around the world who depend on our corn exports. They were devastated by price increases that made up a huge percentage of their daily income. A World Bank study demonstrated that 75% of the global increase in food prices were the result of biofuel policy.

Take a few minutes to read this recent National Geographic special report about hunger called "The End of Plenty?"

 Some take this myth a step further and claim corn ethanol didn't increase the price of food at all. The USDA predicted it would increase the price of food, the CBO admits it has increased the price of food by as much as 9 billion dollars, and the renewable fuels legislation deliberately set a limit on how much ethanol could come form corn in anticipation that food price increases would eventually make it politically untenable.

A new study (commissioned by the evil shadow world of the Grocery Manufacturers Association) predicts:

"To attract this level of corn acreage, the largest in over 60 years, will require the price of corn to rise significantly, potentially well above the record level of $7.50 recorded during the summer of 2008."

 To me the issue of American food price increases is far less of an issue than what this is doing to the billions of impoverished around the world. By subsidizing our farmers for many decades and exporting that low-priced corn to the world we kept poor countries from having any chance of developing farm industries that could compete with us. The plus side is that our farm welfare programs have (inadvertently) been providing affordable food for the poorest in the world. Our farmers now want to revise that policy. They want to keep their subsidies but increase their profit margins by diverting that corn into our gas tanks, which has doubled the price of corn, delivering a one-two knockout punch to the billions of poor in the world by first preventing them from developing a competing farm industry and now by making the corn they depend on for survival too expensive to eat.


8) Corn ethanol saved Americans $48 billion in 2008 alone.

The above suggests that the more corn ethanol you make, the more money Americans save. Corn ethanol promoters have gone over the cliff, giving corn ethanol almost magical properties. If using a quarter of our corn crop saved us $48 billion in a single year, would using our entire crop save us 4 x 48 = $192 billion a year? Make enough corn ethanol and we could drive for free? All this magic from a liquid fuel that costs more than the gasoline it is blended into, a fuel that wouldn't even exist in a free market without massive government assistance? I'm being facetious of course. My eyes have been rolling so much I gave myself a headache.

According to this 2009 study by Rice University's department of civil and environmental engineering, corn ethanol cost taxpayers an extra $1.95 per gallon on top of the gasoline retail price.

The economists (the same ones who failed to predict or halt our present economic meltdown) at Merrill Lynch (the company that sold itself to Bank of America to avoid bankruptcy) are now busy doing what they always do, cobbling together explanations for what they failed to predict in hindsight.

Gross exaggerations like the one above are derived by corn ethanol promotional organizations from information found in two separate sources. One was a study from Iowa State. The other was from a reporter in the March 2008 WSJ who said that Francisco Blanch from Merrill Lynch claimed that oil and gasoline prices would be about 15% higher if biofuel producers weren’t increasing their output.

Although the report referenced by Blanch makes no mention of a 15% value it does say:

"…On our estimates, retail gasoline prices would be at least $21/bbl higher on average without the incremental biofuel supplies…In particular, the surging ethanol output has contributed to temper prices in the Midwest (by $32/bbl) and in the East Coast (by $24/bbl) due to the greater availability of ethanol and the lower price elasticity of demand in these regions…"

You can back 15% out of that using the price of crude oil at the time of the study. They don't show their calculations but they do say that they derived that value using the equations for elasticity supply and/or demand: Es = (% change in quantity supplied) / (% change in price). If you know two out of the three variables you can solve for the third. So, if you assume that for oil the short-term value for Es is roughly 0.06 and if biofuels represent roughly 0.9 % of global liquid fuel supplies, solving for (% change in price) you can also get a value of 15%.

It's a simple equation taught in all introductory economics classes. The numbers derived from it are purely hypothetical and unverifiable and can't be used in isolation in the real world. The 48 billion dollar value bandied about by corn ethanol promoters is a gross exaggeration using a constant 15% value applied to record high oil costs that would in reality vary week to week depending on fuel supplies. It excludes external costs like the billions in penalties imparted by corn ethanol form higher food costs, blending subsidies, and lower gas mileage (roughly 22 billion) and the costs of new refineries (hundreds of billions). It does not account for consumer behavior related to fuel prices like the additional miles driven because of lower costs or low mileage cars purchased in place of high mileage cars. That same report also says:

"…While corn-based ethanol has surely helped increase the supply of transportation fuels, it is also taking away significant amounts of food from the market. Almost 25% of the US corn crop was used for fuel ethanol in 2007, and this share is likely to increase to almost 35% in 2008. But the number is lower at a global level. When we aggregate global corn, soybeans, rice, wheat and sugar production, we find that 7% of the calories contained in these crops was turned into fuel in 2007. …partly due to the incremental grain demand from biofuels The sharp increase in grain demand from the biofuels sector—together with soaring demand for richer diets from emerging markets—has started to affect food prices. We estimate that the increased ethanol production from corn in the US has pushed up corn prices by 21% since 2004…."

A 21 % increase in the price of corn would translate into a cost of about $ 9 billion. It is easy to calculate that corn ethanol is at best treading water and at worst is costing Americans hundreds of billions. The real world savings of high mileage hybrid technology dwarf by orders of magnitude any conceivable hypothetical savings from our corn ethanol policies.

The above Merrill Lynch report made no attempt to account for all of the external costs associated with corn ethanol production. Reports have limited value because you can't see the assumptions and calculations used.

A study published in this same time frame by two agricultural economists at Iowa State (the epicenter of America's corn ethanol belt) said:

"… Estimation results show that over the period 1995 to 2007, ethanol production had a significant negative effect of $0.29 to $0.40 per gallon on retail gasoline prices. …"

The Biofuel and Agriculture industry used the above sentence from the study to claim that corn ethanol has reduced the price of gasoline $0.29 to $0.40 per gallon (an average of $0.35 per gallon). Which doesn't make sense if you stop and think about it. That's a 10% reduction if gas is selling for $3.50 a gallon and a 35% reduction if gas is selling for $1.00 a gallon. Were they trying to say that ethanol had lowered the price of gas on average 35 cents in 1995 as well as in 2007?

I could not make heads or tails of the study so I contacted the lead author to ask for clarification. He said:

"…The change of retail gasoline prices varies across refinery markets from $0.29-$0.40/gallon…."

Which didn't help much. He also said:

"…These changes $0.29/$0.40 are for regional markets and based on sample average of ethanol production, crude oil prices. For a specific year, we need to recalculate the effects…."

Deep down in the study I also found this:

"…Because these results are based on capacity, it would be wrong to extrapolate the results to today’s markets. Had we not had ethanol, it seems likely that the crude oil refining industry would be slightly larger today than it actually is…."

Because the price of gas varies month to month, the biofuel and agriculture propagandists were having a tough time converting that 35-cent per gallon savings into total savings. Some would just apply it to the average price of gas over a given time frame, which the author clearly states is inappropriate.

Here is one example of how this study was interpreted to claim that increasing our fuel supply with ethanol just 4% saved Americans $48.28 billion in lower gas prices in 2008:

"…over the period of 1995 to 2007, ethanol production caused retail gasoline prices to be about $0.34 lower than they otherwise would be (the study gives a range of $0.29 and $0.40, but for the purposes of this analysis I have taken the average which is about $0.34). According to the Energy Information Administration, Americans consumed 142 billion gallons of gasoline in 20072. Given the $0.34 savings for each of the 142 billion gallons of gasoline consumed throughout that year, the overall savings to consumers was about $48.28 billion as a result of the expanded supply of fuel provided by ethanol (I arrived at this number by multiplying $0.34 by 142 billion gallons)…"

These guys also always manage to ignore other costs of ethanol production. For example, to get that mythical $48 billion savings we had to build 214 ethanol refineries, increase the cost of food, pay the oil companies 51 cents for every gallon of ethanol they blend, usurp grassland, jungle and conservation reserve carbon sinks, increase green house gas emissions, and exacerbate the Gulf of Mexico dead zone. This does not include future costs like making cars ethanol compatible and a strategic ethanol reserve to cushion impacts of bad crop years.

About 9.25 billion gallons of ethanol were blended in 2008. 0.51 cents x 9.25 billion = 4.7 billion dollars in subsidies.

140.5 billion gallons of gasoline consumed in 2008

9.25/140.5 = 6.6% average blend. If an 85% mixture drops mileage 27%, a 6.6 % blend will drop it 2%.

A 6.6 percent ethanol blend will result in a 2 percent drop in gas mileage. This caused Americans to buy an extra 2% of gas in 2008. Average price of gas in 2008= $3.30.

Extra money spent on gas = $3.3x140.5 billion x 0.02 =9.3 billion

The CBO just reported that ethanol will increase the cost of food assistance programs almost a billion dollars. Extrapolating that to the American public in general results in about $9 billion.

Assuming it will cost about $200 to make a car flex fuel and that 7.6 million cars are sold annually, it will cost $ 1.5 billion annually to exceed the 10% blending limit.

The 21% increase in the cost of corn from ethanol is roughly $9 billion.

4.7 + 9.3 + 9 + 1.5 + 9 = $ 33.5 billion

Assuming it costs 500 million ( )on average to build 200 ethanol refineries you are looking at $100 billion in capital costs, 100 + 24.5 = $124.5 billion and it keeps going from there.

This report demonstrates that it may cost taxpayers almost half a trillion dollars to reach the government's biofuel goals by 2022 and if Obama makes good on his desire to double that amount we would be looking at close to a trillion dollars.

It has been well documented that all things being equal, when you lower the price of gasoline people use more of it. Gasoline use is presently dropping along with price but that is the result of the recession. It would drop faster if gasoline were much more expensive. The whole "corn ethanol price lowering" argument is moot because it stimulates higher gasoline usage.

9) Corn ethanol can make America energy independent

It is physically impossible to make America energy independent with corn ethanol. It took 25 thousand square miles of prime farmland (five thousand square miles more than all of the cropland in Indiana) to displace less than 5% of our gasoline (calculations based on official USDA and IEA data and includes distiller's grains, and ethanol mileage reductions.) The price paid to get that (both economically and environmentally--see Myths 1,2,7 & 8) was huge.

This myth is sometimes modified to say Corn ethanol can make America "more" energy independent.

The goal of energy independence is to protect our economy from price spikes caused by large fluctuations in supply as happened with the OPEC oil embargo. Corn ethanol's vulnerability to weather induced crop yield variation tends to nullify this argument for energy independence. We have less control over the weather than we do OPEC. At the time of this writing, Brazil is considering importing corn ethanol because crop failures have made cane ethanol too expensive.

The desire for energy independence is largely driven by xenophobia:

"…As defined by the OED it can mean a fear of or aversion to, not only persons from other countries, but other cultures, subcultures, subsets of belief systems; in short, anyone who meets any list of criteria about their origin, religion, personal beliefs, habits, language, orientations, or any other criteria…"

Go to any comment thread and you will find God fearing American xenophobes motivated by their hatred for "camel jockeys" and "towel heads" to replace gasoline with moonshine in their gas hog poseur pickups and station wagons (cleverly marketed as sport utility vehicles). They think Iraq was connected to 9/11 and don't know that we haven't imported oil from Iran since 1979. They are unaware that Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were our allies in our last two wars (the oil kept flowing and they paid for over half of the cost of the Gulf war) or that the Twin Towers were brought down by hate-filled Koran-thumping religionist xenophobes--their counterparts.

You will often hear these clowns talk about not wanting to fund terrorists with their gasoline expenditures. Religiously motivated suicide bombers brought down the twin towers. Suicide bombers require very little funding. Maybe they should be focusing their attentions on eliminating religion. In addition, oil is fungible. You can't starve terrorists of funding by not buying oil from the Middle East. The Middle East will simply sell it to someone else.


Corn ethanol is impeding progress toward energy independence. A market is defined as consumer demand being met by entrepreneurs competing for their dollars. Manufacturers of 19-mpg flex fuel and 45-mpg hybrid cars are competing to meet consumer demand for energy independence. Every flex fuel gas hog sold to a gullible consumer who has been convinced to "Go Green, think Yellow" has prevented a higher mileage car from entering the market. It takes 10 gallons of fossil fuel energy to make 13 gallons of ethanol. A 10% improvement in gas mileage (19 mpg going to 21 mpg).is equivalent to a to a 13% blend of ethanol.

This study has also shown that corn ethanol is competing with other uses of biomass that would be almost 100% more efficient in the use of land.

And finally, here is a detailed study that found corn ethanol's impact on oil imports are so trivial that it gets lost in the data scatter.

10) Researchers publishing science not supportive of corn ethanol are hacks

It's not unknown in comment threads for corn ethanol enthusiasts to resort to character assassination, assigning derogatory nicknames to researchers who publish science that isn't supportive of corn ethanol. Pimentel is sometimes referred to as "bug collector" because he is an entomologist, and Searchinger is sometimes referred to as "the lawyer" because he was once a lawyer for a major environmental organization. There is something amusing about overall-clad comment thread pundits mocking science researchers. Would it be fair game to mock Bob "don't touch my paycheck" Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association and Joe "I am your father" Jobe of the National Biodiesel Board?

There is a long and growing list of researchers publishing information that does not support corn ethanol. It is bizarre that they find themselves defending their papers primarily against the likes of the Renewable Fuels Association instead of other scientists. These folks are going to be kept busy coming up with derogatory nicknames for all of them. Maybe I can help. Here is a short list of ideas:

David Pimentel as "Bug collector" (respected environmental researcher for almost half a century. Pioneered life cycle analysis of biofuels)

Timothy Searchinger as "The lawyer" (verified that biofuel crops that displace carbon sinks increase GHG emissions)

Paul Crutzen as "Ozone man" (won Nobel for work on ozone, found corn ethanol up to 50% worse than gasoline for GHG)

Holly Gibbs as "Satellite girl" (verified with satellite imagery that Amazon is being converted into cropland)

J. E. Campbell as "Biomass burning man" (found that bioelectricity is roughly 100% more efficient than corn ethanol)

Rhett Butler as, ah, "Rhett Butler" (owner of website Mongabay)

Etc, etc. and yes, I know, this is more of a strawman than a real myth.


11) Corn ethanol will facilitate introduction of cellulosic ethanol

An article in the WSJ calls this the "bait and switch" tactic:

"The ethanol lobby is attempting a giant bait-and-switch: Keep claiming that cellulosic ethanol is just around the corner, even as it knows the only current technology to meet federal mandates is corn ethanol (or sugar, if it didn't face an import tariff)."

I adapted the chart shown below from the one shown here that explains our federal biofuel laws. In it, Congress dictates the kind of fuel citizens will use, how much, and when they will use it. They have not dictated what color it should be …yet.

According to Robert Rapier's blog the government was planning to get 70% of the cellulosic ethanol next year from a company called Cello, which was just convicted of fraud:

"…a string of witnesses testified that samples of the fuel allegedly produced at Cello’s facility…were derived entirely from fossil and not renewable sources,"

Turns out it can't produce cellulosic ethanol at prices that are even remotely affordable.

A brief summary:

    1. Biodiesel refiners are going bankrupt left and right even with a dollar per gallon blending subsidy because they can't produce biodiesel at prices people are willing to pay because their feedstock is competing with food companies in price.
    2. The European Union just slapped those biodiesel producers with a tariff to stop them from shipping most of their product to Europe where our dollar per gallon blending subsidy was driving out of business European producers, which by the way, nullified the entire energy independence argument.
    3. The Government was duped into thinking affordable cellulosic ethanol was just around the corner.
    4. Although corn ethanol refineries are also going bankrupt left and right for similar reasons as biodiesel, note that it is the only fuel on the chart that is actually exceeding mandate goals.

If you were the only cobbler in town would you welcome a new cobbler who had a way to make shoes faster and cheaper? No you would not and neither will the corn ethanol industry, or soybean biodiesel industry for that matter. Robert Rapier posted a recent real world example documenting how the biodiesel lobby just killed off a competitor that had developed a new kind of technology to make biodiesel from fat. Be sure to follow all of the links to get the full history. This is how it will be done:

1) Cobble together some kind of excuse as to why they don't deserve the same subsidy as you.

2) Use your powerful lobby to eliminate their subsidy while keeping or possibly increasing your own.

3) Demand tariffs to eliminate offshore competition (as is already done with cane ethanol).

Obviously, this isn't really about energy independence or finding ways to make affordable renewable fuels. This is about pork barrel politics--politicians dipping into the public larder to buy votes from the farm belt--biofuels made from food crops. The excuse in my example here was that because this alternative method to make biodiesel was being developed by an oil company it should not be eligible for the dollar per gallon blending subsidy.

Based on this precedent, any oil company that buys out a biofuel company should lose its subsidies. Top U.S. oil refiner Valero Energy just bought out seven ethanol refineries. The reality is that oil companies will eventually buy out all biofuel refineries or those refineries will eventually grow to look and act exactly like oil companies. This isn't a game for small players.

The idea is that corn ethanol is a temporary, first generation biofuel that will create ethanol infrastructure that will be used by its successor, cellulosic ethanol. There are over 200 corn ethanol refineries. The problem is that none of them are designed to make ethanol from cellulose. In addition, few if any are located near the rail lines that will be needed to ship large volumes of low-density biomass. Raise your hand if you think the investors in those corn ethanol refineries are going to go down without a fight if cellulosic ever becomes affordable.

The corn ethanol lobby wants to force consumers to pay extra for flex fuel cars (capable of handling ethanol as well as gasoline) so they can force us to consume more ethanol. This will cost consumers many billions over the next decade. What a waste that would be if cellulosic ethanol never does become affordable. Worse yet, what a waste if it turns out that ethanol regardless of what it is made from (corn or cellulose) turns out not to be the fuel of the future. There are other kinds of biofuels: Biobutanol, Green diesel, and Bio-DME (which produces no soot and is as efficient in a diesel engine as conventional diesel) to name a few.

They will have a tough time breaking into the market dominated by the farm belt government handout recipients. Biodiesel fuels achieve 60% more mileage than ethanol fuels. Why have we bet the farm on ethanol?


Take a look at the two following charts. Look how much more efficient cane ethanol is than corn ethanol. Corn ethanol reduces mileage 30% over gasoline while biodiesel increases it 30%. That means you get 60% more miles on a gallon of biodiesel than a gallon of ethanol. As with soy biodiesel, the energy balance of palm is much higher than corn because you don't have to use energy to ferment sugars to make the fuel. You basically just mix a little methanol in with the oil you squeeze out of the palm nut, warm it, let the glycerine settle out, and pump it.


I'm not promoting palm oil because it has a long history of wiping out tropical ecosystems and it's still doing it.

And of course, we can't grow it so we would have to import it, making us just as dependent on foreign sources of oil. It also has cold temperature concerns. We live in a primarily temperate climate. We will never be able to compete with tropical countries when it comes to growing biofuels. If we continue to stay with the primitive car technology of today we will accelerate the destruction of what remains of the biosphere. Cellulosic ethanol is perpetually five years from becoming affordable and does not have nearly the return on energy as cane ethanol.

One of the biggest arguments in support of corn ethanol is that it uses existing car infrastructure and technology. We don't have to improve it! Isn't that great? But it isn't compatible with our cars or even with our fuel pipelines, which is why it has to be moved by tanker car instead of pipelines.

12) The box of Cornflakes argument

You hear it parroted all the time. It usually goes something like this, "Increasing the cost of corn fifty percent would increase the price of a box of corn flakes only a few pennies." The idea is to convince you that corn ethanol has (and presumably will always have) a negligible impact on food prices. Big biofuel can't deny that corn prices were and remain much higher than historical averages so they instead try to convince us that high grain prices do not significantly affect food prices.

It's another deception spawned by Big Biofuel and spread by unwitting dupes. You see, a box of corn flakes has, literally, about a handful of corn in it (about 8 % by weight). Increasing the price of that handful of corn will therefore have a negligible impact on the price of a box of Cornflakes. Likewise, the price of a pair of shoes is also not greatly impacted by corn ethanol, for pretty much the same reason.

On the other hand, any increase in the price of corn for any of the nearly one billion humans (3.25 times more people than there are Americans) who go to bed hungry every night is a disaster because a huge percentage of their income goes for corn meal and other grains. They can't afford Cornflakes. The world is flat. America's efficient farming has been helping the poor of the world to eat for decades now by keeping food affordable. This new idea to make American farmers (0.005% of the world's population) more profitable by putting food into our gas tanks has already malnourished many impoverished children.

At the time of this writing the costs at my local grocery are as follows:

Box of Cornflakes = $2.22/pound, $2.50/18 oz. box

Bag of yellow cornmeal = 0.87/pound, $4.35/five-lb. bag

Increasing the cost of corn 50% would increase a box of Cornflakes from $2.5 to about $2.60 (barely noticed irritation)

Increasing the cost of corn 50% would increase a five-lb. bag of cornmeal from $4.35 to about $6.50 (malnutrition for poor children).

A World Bank study demonstrated that 75% of the "global increase" (as opposed to the increase for Americans, who spend much of their food income eating out) in food prices was the result of biofuel policy.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently reported that food stamps and child nutrition programs are expected to cost up to $900 million more this year because of increased ethanol use, which translates to about $9 billion for the general populace. That is twice as much as the 45 cents per gallon of ethanol being paid by taxpayers to have it blended into their gas supply.

See also Myth # 7. You should be outraged.

13) Food processors are really behind high food prices

Here are just a few of the many quotes from biofuel proponents found with a quick Google search:

"…Grocery Manufacturers trying to ‘drive wedge’ between consumers, ethanol…"

"… perhaps the grocery industry and meat processors saw a way to raise their prices and pad their coffers while pointing fingers at another industry…"

"…the grocery industry threw this out there as an excuse to raise prices…"

"…People will pay whatever food producers are charging - and we will not allow them to smear ethanol in the process…"

The biofuel propaganda machine is trying to drive wedges between you the consumer who is having subsidized ethanol forced down your throat, and your local grocer, who sells you food at razor thin profit margins. Again, you should be outraged. According to Big Biofuel, Big Oil, and Big Groceries are all conspiring and colluding to blame everything on them, the innocent babes who are just trying to make 0.004 percent of the world's population (American farmers) more profitable and to give American's energy independence from the camel jockeys (by shipping most biodiesel overseas with our tax dollars attached).

One day I got fed up listening to the cacophony of the biofuel propaganda machine. I dug up official historical corn and gasoline prices starting in 2005 (when the renewable fuels legislation in congress started this mess) through 2008. I took the average prices for each year and plotted them:

Note that the price of corn went up much faster than the price of gasoline--what a coincidence. The price of gasoline has since plunged along with the price of corn but corn remains much higher than historical averages.


The average price of gas at the time of this writing is $2.44 per gallon and a bushel of corn is sitting at about $4.00 a bushel. If you produce beef, pork, chicken, eggs, or dairy, high grain prices really stick it to you. You have no choice but to pass that cost on to consumers. Retail food prices also tend to be "sticky." Unlike commodity prices, they don't move up or down very fast.

 In the long run, food prices will always fluctuate. In the past, as prices rose farmers would put more land under the plow, which would in turn increase food supply and drop prices again. But that was before government funded biofuel mandates came along. Humanity presently isn't, and may not ever be able to grow food and fuel fast enough to keep prices from rising. If you are an American farmer (0.004 % or the world population) or work for Big Biofuel, your mouth is probably watering right now.

One thing is for sure. To grow both food and fuel, carbon sinks, jungles, wetlands and grasslands will have to go under the plow. If you don't "believe" in global warming (or evolution) and could give a rat's ass about extinctions, or biodiversity loss and think the more people there are the better off everyone is, you have landed on the wrong website.

If you believe Big Biofuel when they say that supply is and will always be met by ever increasing yields per acre, I have a bridge I want to sell you. Global crop productivity gains are barely keeping up with population growth.

14) The oil subsidy argument

Assuming America uses about 6.26 billion barrels of petroleum per year and that there are 42 gallons in a barrel you get 262 billion gallons of petroleum consumed per year in America:

Pick a number that you think represents how much oil is subsidized and divide that number by 262 billion. That will give you a number representing how much subsidy oil companies get per gallon.

Some examples:

A Friends of the Earth study says oil is subsidized to the tune of $32.9 billion/262 = 13 cents per gallon.

A Greenpeace study says oil is subsidized to the tune of $35 billion/262 = 13 cents per gallon

An Earth Track study says oil is subsidized to the tune of $39 billion /262 =15 cents per gallon

None of these come close to the subsidies per gallon being received by corn ethanol and soy biodiesel.

On the other hand, if you want to consider the cost of the Iraq war (say, a trillion dollars a year) as one giant subsidy to oil then we are paying about 1000/8.5 = $118 per gallon of oil shipped from Iraq.

You can of course continue to play number games like this to get just about any number you want but in the end it comes down to this. Oil is fungible. We don't have to buy any oil from the Persian Gulf (which presently represents less than 15% of our total oil use). We could buy it from someone else, which would not only obliterate the argument from the xenophobes that we are funding terrorists, but would also be a lot cheaper than trying to grow biofuels.

About 70% of the money paid for crude oil imports goes to American's who are employed by American companies who refine, market, and ship the final product. And if you don't like the idea of paying others for their oil then you must not like the idea of paying others for their lumber, ore, cars, computers and everything else our trading partners exchange with us but that is how the real world works. Nothing facilitates peace like highly dependent trading partners who are much less likely to make war on each other.

This isn't an argument in support of oil. It's an argument against ever escalating subsidy wars. If you desperately want to use less oil, stop driving SUVs (Station wagons Utilizing Very large tires) and PPTs (Poseur Pickup Trucks). Efficiency gains are the only way out. Liquid biofuels will always cost as much or more than oil.

15) It takes more energy to make corn ethanol than it returns

Science and technology are always advancing. For decades corn ethanol consumed more energy than it produced. When you added up diesel for farm equipment and shipping, petroleum for pesticides and fertilizers, and the electricity, coal, and natural gas used by the refinery, you found that corn ethanol was actually using more energy than it returned.

In 2006, a paper published in Science by Farrell et al reviewed six corn ethanol energy balance studies and concluded that 5 to 26% of corn ethanol was indeed renewable. It found that a maximum of about12 gallons of corn ethanol was recovered for every 10 gallons of equivalent fossil energy input. This new science was accepted by all participants, as it should be. The corn ethanol industry was glad to see that after three decades their product was finally producing more energy than it consumed.

Note that corn ethanol enthusiasts reject out of hand any and all new science that fails to support their industry while simultaneously embracing all old and any new science that does. A recent case in point is a study done by researchers at the University of Nebraska. It found that the new refineries built since 2006 have an EROEI somewhere between 1.5 and 1.8. That means the energy return might be 1.5 or it might be as high as 1.8 depending on the veracity of input data.

So, what is the veracity of the input data? Rather than obtain copies of actual energy bills for the refineries, they relied on surveys, one of which was from the Renewable Fuels Association, an organization (notorious for gross exaggerations) funded by corn ethanol interests with the sole purpose of promoting corn ethanol. A chart in the study showed that four out of seven survey results taken by different companies were almost identical to the RFA survey.

"…the average amount of energy used in the surveyed plants was remarkably similar…"

Huh, what a coincidence. Surveys can be unreliable, especially when your livelihood is on the line. The study also did not include land displacement impacts.

Owners of biofuel refineries are under tremendous pressure to put their best foot forward. In other words, until an independent third party is able to validate the actual energy bills for those refineries, the output of the study can't be accepted as gospel (garbage in = garbage out). If that step is taken and the results verified in a respected peer reviewed science journal then this study would become the new benchmark for modern corn ethanol as the 1.2 number was. Until that happens, the results have to be taken with a grain of salt.

Keep in mind that this new study shows that out of 15 gallons, five gallons are renewable. This means that 15 gallons of ethanol production consumes 10 gallons of equivalent fossil fuel energy--natural gas, coal, diesel. At best, you can call this fuel one-third renewable. Although still an abysmal return on energy input, it is an improvement over the commonly accepted value of 1.2 (12 gallons of ethanol for every 10 gallons of equivalent fossil energy input).

16) The distiller's grains byproduct replaces the corn used to make ethanol

Distillers grains have very roughly about 30% more nutritional value than cracked corn when used as part of cattle feed. This fact is being used to claim that distiller's grains can displace corn as feed, therefore no feed is lost as a result of using corn for ethanol.

It takes 56 pounds of corn kernels to produce 2.8 gallons of ethanol, 11.4 pounds of distiller's grain, 3 pounds of Glutan meal, and 1.6 pounds of corn oil. If you multiply 11.4 times 1.3 you will get a conservative estimate for distillers grains ability to displace corn. 11.4 x 1.3 = 14.82 pounds corn equivalent.

So, 56 - 14.82 -3 -1.6 = 36.6 pounds of corn lost that cannot feed people (or the cows that people eat). In other words, about 65 percent of a bushel of corn is lost to the food chain when you use it to make ethanol.

If this corn is not being lost to the human food chain (reducing supply/raising price) then how can one explain the high cost of corn even though acreage planted with corn is at record highs?

People lose weight on the high protein Atkin's diet for a reason, and why the billion undernourished humans on this planet should not switch to an all meat, egg, and dairy Atkin's diet even if they could.

The whole idea of using grain in feedlots for cattle is to fatten them up for slaughter. Cattle evolved to eat grass, not corn, not antibiotics-laced distillers grains.

It is a myth propagated by big biofuel that the 25 percent of a bushel of corn that becomes distiller's grains is nutritionally equivalent to an entire bushel of corn feed i.e. no cattle feed is lost to corn ethanol.