Posts Tagged ‘ethanol’


“A law taking effect Tuesday makes Missouri just the third state – behind Minnesota and Hawaii – to implement a wide-ranging ethanol mandate.” This article by AP reporter David Lieb reports on new Missouri legislation that mandates the use of ethanol-gasoline mixtures. E10, or 10% ethanol, has already become common on Missouri. The article cites the low cost of ethanol relative to gasoline as the economic driving force, but I take exception to this point! As documented extensively on my blog, tax subsidies fund ethanol and, unless obtained from biomass (which it isn’t), it not only has terrible consequences for the environment but is as bad or worse for air pollution as gasoline. Read more at this site and comment on your thoughts about the socialism practiced by Republicans to help Archer Daniels Midland and other major corn manufacturers even though corn ethanol is bad for the environment.

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As reported by Timothy Gardner of Reuters, ethanol prices are so low that producers are not making any profit.

U.S. weekly ethanol margins still in the dumps

by Timothy Gardner

NEW YORK, Nov 2 (Reuters) – U.S. ethanol margins ticked a few cents higher this week as producers fetched slightly higher prices for the renewable fuel, but the average producer was still making next to no profit, analysts said Friday.

So, production of ethanol is

  • ruining the food economy
  • polluting the rivers (and streams and Gulf of Mexico and everything else) with agricultural runoff
  • eliminating grasslands
  • using up water in water-poor regions

and the bad news is … nobody is even getting rich off this behavior! Oh, and it is having zero impact on our need for foreign oil. The robber barons of old must be turning over in their graves.

More from Mr. Gardner:

“When gasoline prices are much higher than ethanol prices, some blenders add more ethanol to gasoline than required by law, which eventually boosts prices for the renewable fuel.

But the slighter better ethanol margins were not enough to line the pockets of renewable fuel producers

“When you consider overhead costs, you’re probably below break even,” Ron Oster, an ethanol analyst at Broadpoint Capital, Inc, in Missouri, said in an interview.”

Why such trouble? Because the corn-ethanol business faces problems like

“rising prices for natural gas, used to power most bio-refineries, [that] cut profit margins down to about break even”

Read the whole article for bleak projections of profit, more explanation of high production costs and revelations about the poor efficiency of many ethanol plants.

Why are we subsidizing this industry, and why are we pretending that it is good for the environment?

© James K. Bashkin, 2007

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I initially used “digg” to call attention to the title story on Yahoo Green, but after further reading, I ending up writing a critical note about it and the related study on this blog (below).

Some, but not all, of the problems with corn-to-ethanol operations are discussed on Yahoo Green and in the original Environmental Defense report. These problems include increased usage of water in areas already suffering water shortages and (unmentioned in this story) increased water pollution. Also an issue is the loss of land from the food agriculture supply chain as food and highly-subsidized ethanol compete for farmers’ attention. Finally, also unmentioned in the story: possible health problems due to formaldehye and ozone from ethanol combustion. So, I tried to address these issues in the post called “Environmental Defense report soft on ethanol” written yesterday and found below. I was pleased to have a note of clarification from Environmental Defense pointing out that they are the organization I have supported for many years and think of as the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF, apparently a 10-year old name, but, being 49 years old, what’s a decade or two here or there?). The comment from the former EDF also addressed the “narrow focus” of the report. I appreciate the responsiveness of the group in addressing my confusion over (their) identities. I understand the logic provided for the narrow focus of the report, but I’m not completely comfortable with it.

copyright 2007 James K. Bashkin

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The Environmental Defense organization released a report, discussed on its web pages and in a related web article written by one of the report’s co-authors, about the potential negative effects of ethanol production on the environment.

The report, a downloadable PDF, Potential Impacts of Biofuels Expansion on Natural Resources [PDF], discusses the damage that ethanol production could do to the Ogallala Aquifer, the center of the famous 1930’s Dust bowl and

“one of the world’s largest aquifers and an important water source for the eight Great Plains states it lies beneath: Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming.”

The report, as summarized on the Environmental Defense website, warned of the following:

” Making ethanol requires substantial resources. For example, between three and six gallons of water are needed to produce one gallon of ethanol. Our study shows how plans to expand the production of ethanol, primarily with corn-based feedstock, will further strain the region’s resources. Topping the list of potential issues are:

  • increased use of water in places where supplies are already dwindling,
  • retired croplands reverting to working lands, and
  • the loss of important grasslands to crop production.”

However, this warning is mild compared to more recent conclusions and studies, including one study from the National Research Council and one from the United Nations,. I have discussed these reports before.

Water shortages are ONE consequence of ethanol production, and the ED is correct to point this out. However, the conversion of corn to ethanol carries with it a much higher environmental burden and actual cost: the increased runoff of fertilizer alone threatens rivers, streams and other bodies of water, including the Gulf of Mexico. This harmful process is also heavily subsidized by Federal and State tax dollars in the US.

Until we can implement biomass to ethanol conversion commercially, the UN has called for a halt to biofuel use. The current methods compete too much with food and cause too much environmental damage. Jane Goodall has stated that biofuels, while helpful in principle, damage the rain forests if made without proper foresight and methods. I agree with the UN and with Jane Goodall.

We also need to explore and solve apparent health issues from ethanol-based fuel, as found by sampling the air quality of Brazil, where many cars have been running on 100% ethanol for decades. The health issues are directly related to high amounts of ozone and formaldehyde in Brazilian air- these are substances associated with serious respiratory problems and, in the case of formaldehyde, with causing cancer in lab mice.

It seems to me that we could eliminate the harmful emissions with proper catalytic converter design or other adjustments to the combustion engineering of cars, but (a) I’m just speculating and (b) somebody has to work on it.

So, I’m am surprised at the “lack of teeth” in Environmental Defense’s report, and its focus just on water use, with no mention of damage to water quality or food supply.

I am a financial supporter of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF)- I’m confused about whether there is any relationship between ED and EDF. I haven’t had issues with EDF in the past, and I’m getting the impression that the groups aren’t linked. Sorry- I need to clarify this. Will do in the next post.

© James K. Bashkin, 2007

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I have discussed biofuels, and especially bioethanol from corn, in quite a few posts so far. Some of the discussion has centered on promising (old and new) approaches to biofuels, which I believe include:

  • Biodiesel from waste (fish oil, cooking oil and other sources)
  • Ethanol (bioethanol) from agricultural waste (specifically not from food products)
  • Metabolic engineering of bacteria to aid biodiesel production
  • Chemistry and engineering of new catalysts for biodiesel production (which probably have to be tailored to each different source of raw material)

With the exception of biodeisel from waste cooking oil and very similar sources, these processes are typically still at the research stage and are not being practiced on a large scale.

Much of the discussion here has covered the problems I and others see with current biofuels practices, which include:

  • The terrible impact on the environment of dramatically inefficient processes such as corn to ethanol (corn ethanol)
  • The conclusion by many scientists, myself included, that sound scientific shows a net loss of energy by using corn to make ethanol
  • The environmental impact of corn ethanol or even some “biodiesel farms” is both direct and indirect
  • Clear cutting of rain forests is being driven by biofuel farming
  • Fertilizer alone from corn ethanol production damages fresh water and salt water, not to mention other agricultural chemicals
  • The problems with air quality associated with ethanol as fuel (mostly ozone and formaldehyde generation and increased photochemical smog, all of which lead to respiratory ailments)
  • My belief that research and development can solve problems with air quality from ethanol fuels
  • My prediction that catalytic converters for ethanol-based cars will be cheaper than current models because ethanol fuels can greatly reduce or eliminate nitrogen- and sulfur-containing impurities found in crude oil and gasoline/petrol (depending on whether one uses ethanol or ethanol/gas-petrol mixtures such as E85)
  • The problem that people are taking political and dogmatic stances on alternative fuels instead of examining each issue critically and on its own merits

Then of course, we have the problem that not enough people are talking about and doing something about energy conservation:

Ignoring conservation is particularly a problem in the US and developing countries- Europe is taking conservation seriously and always has in some ways, such as a the huge investment in public transportation

Now a U.N. spokesman has stated that current biofuel practices are creating hunger and starvation problems amongst the world’s poor (though future biofuel generation methods are predicted not to cause such problems):

As reported by EDITH M. LEDERER, an Associated Press Writer,

“A U.N. expert on Friday called the growing practice of converting food crops into biofuel

“a crime against humanity,”

saying it is creating food shortages and price jumps that cause millions of poor people to go hungry. “

The statement by Jean Ziegler called for a stop to the current practice of using food crops to make ethanol, saying that it is leading to hunger of catastrophic proportions among poor people.

Mr. Ziegler did not call for an end to biofuels as a source of fuel. Instead, he proposed a 5 year break in biofuel production to give new technologies that don’t threaten the food economy time to make an impact on the marketplace. These technologies include

  • nonfood crops and cellulose-based sources of biofuels
  • crops that require far fewer resources than corn
  • agricultural waste as a source of ethanol
  • new methods of biodiesel production

Careful to point out that current biofuel practices grew out of good intentions, Ziegler still made it clear that the conversion of huge amounts of food crops into ethanol will lead to serious food shortages in many areas.

As reported by Lederer,

“The world price of wheat doubled in one year and the price of corn quadrupled, leaving poor countries, especially in Africa, unable to pay for the imported food needed to feed their people, he said. And poor people in those countries are unable to pay the soaring prices for the food that does come in, (Ziegler) added.”

Read the full article for more details. Thanks to John B. for pointing out the article to me.

© James K. Bashkin, 2007

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This is going up in honor of Blog Action Day, 10/15/2007.

One site that does a lot to make affiliations of “dissenters” clear is the Global Warming Forum. Here we find opinion, commentary, quotes and graphics on many subjects, including:

Curious, to say the least, don’t you think?

I recommend reading Global Warming Forum regularly and learning about a variety of things, including who and what are behind some of the anti-environmental and anti-“environmental regulation” papers that some people publish routinely.

  • Please don’t get the impression that I condemn industrially-funded research, or that I believe all dissenters are evil.
  • I am funded by industry and the Federal government, and plan to keep it that way.
  • In the US, Federal funding levels are low, and industry has always funded important work, worldwide
  • Furthermore, some scientists may believe that global warming is a non-issue without having any ties to large corporations.

However, as required by all reputable, “peer-reviewed” scientific journals (as opposed to newspapers, magazines, trade magazines, etc.), all publications acknowledge funding sources and make clear any possible conflicts of interest. “Peer-reviewed” means that an article has to be read and approved by (typically) 2-3 anonymous, independent scientists and an editor before it can be published. It isn’t a perfect system, but it works pretty well.

Just the other day I found an unreviewed article on the web that was, I felt, really just advertising. It was a very positive discussion of biodiesel, which does have many good properties, but can also be bad for the environment and/or food prices, depending on the details of how it is made and used. The source cited for this article was a website that promotes and advertises biodiesel directly. I tried to contact the author but the email bounced back, so I responded with a post about the problems with Bioethanol (I didn’t want to attack Biodiesel, I just wanted some balance. I address some issues I have with certain types of biodiesel elsewhere in this blog).

There are many things to commend biodiesel, but I’d be willing to bet that any technology examined from only one perspective can sneak up and hurt us:

We need balanced reporting of the benefits and possible drawbacks of all technology!

Let’s take a look at an unrelated example that does acknowledge the “connections”, but also reveals something curious about the past. Searching Googlescholar for the “link between cigarettes and cancer” turns up articles like:

The idea behind this article is that an “electrically heated cigarette” (EHC) is far safer than a cigarette that burns in the normal way. Who cares? It will still kill you. Of course, the authors and their employers from the tobacco industry care. Interestingly, the following note accompanies the paper:

“Philip Morris Research Laboratories GmbH recently changed its name from INBIFO Institüt für Biologische Forschung GmbH.”

Just perhaps, this change took place because people became angry that something called

“INBIFO, the Institute for Biological Research” (translated from the German)

was just an arm of Phillip Morris, the tobacco company. Somehow the “Institute for Biological Research” sounds impressive and independent, especially compared to “Philip Morris Research Laboratories”. I wonder how many years the “deceptive labeling” practice went on.

So, keep reading here, at the Global Warming Forum and elsewhere to have a better chance of judging the quality and sources of information for yourself.

© James K. Bashkin, 2007

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I couldn’t accept a critical comment because (a) wordpress insisted on treating it as spam and (b) they were right: it was linked to what is apparently a spam site (it tried to download software onto my computer without asking my permission). However, I welcome disagreement, so I put the entire, unedited criticism in the comments section to the post “An Unfortunate Truth about Bioethanol”, though under my own name. I also added some responses.

Not everything about corn-ethanol is bad. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, too much is bad to make it a good idea. See the following EPA report on formaldehyde if you have any questions about how desirable it is as a tail-pipe gas (it has been recognized as the cause of major health problems by the EPA since the 1980s).

© James K. Bashkin, 2007

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There are good and bad sides to biofuels, as Jane Goodall points out. I will explore this in detail in a series of articles that express my opinion and cite scientific reports or discussions. First, a bullet-point summary of key points is given below.

Much of the good/bad duality of biofuels has to do with the following questions:

  • where do the biofuels come from?
  • what are we destroying in order to generate biofuels?
  • what are we consuming in order to generate biofuels?
  • what are we failing to produce in order to generate biofuels?
  • Many (most) of the crops being planted for biofuels are destined to generate biodiesel, not bioethanol.
  • Some plants grown for fuel are intended to produce a type of diesel called straight vegetable oil (SVO).
    • SVOs contain a number of impurities, at least as far as fuel oil is concerned. Even water is an impurity here.
    • Just as an example, you only have to press the oil out of the olives to remove it.
    • Peanut oil and practical coconut oil can be also be collected mechanically, like pressing olives.
  • Biodiesel is more pure than SVO or WVO (if made properly). It is made by chemically splitting animal fat or vegetable oil into two parts, followed by purification.
  • The standard chemical reaction to make biodiesel uses alcohol (methanol or ethanol) and a catalyst.
  • This reaction, called transesterification, generates fatty acid esters and the byproduct known as glycerol.
  • One example that seems to me to have little or no downside is the generation of biodiesel from fish oil:
    • Fish oil is already generated by the fishing industry.
    • Fish oil is potential waste that already exists and may not be used as efficiently as possible.
    • Fish oil conversion to biodiesel still needs to be pushed forward by invention and commercial development.
  • Another example of a method that exhibits great potential is the conversion of all of a plant’s dried matter (known as biomass) into biodiesel:
    • Plant oils are only about 10% of total plant biomass in most cases
    • Using all the biomass to generate biodiesel captures much more of the value of a plant, and the energy that went into growing it, than using only plant oil does
    • Cellulose and lignins are components of typical biomass and are hard to convert into liquid fuel, compared to oils

© James K. Bashkin, 2007

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