This is my formal rebuttal to David Morris’s “case for corn-based fuel.” I’m using my access to the bully pulpit to pull it out of the comments field.

How did the use of ethanol end up alongside tyranny and torture as an evil to be conquered?

That’s easy. A whole lot of real smart people have been giving corn ethanol a lot of thought and have found that “an evil to be conquered” isn’t a bad description. In smaller quantities, it does smaller amounts of damage, but as quantities increase, so does the damage. I mean, what’s not to like about a fuel that milks billions from taxpayers, increases the cost of food all around the world, exacerbates the Gulf of Mexico dead zone, and returns no more energy than it produces?

One well-respected New England environmental coalition raised the possibility that ethanol blends could cause fetal alcohol syndrome.

The strategy here is to suggest (jovially) that because some critics of ethanol are idiots, all critics of ethanol are idiots.

In the last few years, the environmental position has shifted from an attack on ethanol from any source to an attack on corn and corn-derived ethanol.

I have been on top of this issue for the last few years and the above statement is a distortion. We are witnessing increased critique of corn ethanol based on growing awareness of its environmental destructiveness and true costs.

The assault on corn comes from so many directions that sometimes the arguments are wildly contradictory. In an article published in the New York Times Magazine earlier this year, Michael Pollan, an excellent and insightful writer, argues that cheap corn is the key to the epidemic of obesity. The same month, Foreign Affairs published an article by two distinguished university professors who argued that the use of ethanol has led to a run-up in corn prices that threatens to sentence millions more to starvation.

Again, the strategy here is to cherry pick contradicting opinions to sew confusion and erode confidence in critiques. The usurpation of food crops for agrofuels is driving up the cost of food, as discussed here, here, and here.

Ethanol is not a perfect fuel. Corn is far from a perfect fuel crop. We should debate their imperfections. But we should also keep in mind the first law of ecology. “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” Tapping into any energy source involves tradeoffs.

You just strung two straw-man arguments back-to-back. Nobody is looking for perfection. We are looking for something less environmentally destructive than fossil fuels. This product you’re peddling doesn’t meet that minimum requirement.

Yet when it comes to ethanol, and corn, we accept no tradeoffs. In 30 years in the business of alternative energy, I’ve never encountered the level of animosity generated by ethanol, not even in the debate about nuclear power. When it comes to ethanol, we seem to apply a different standard than we do when we evaluate other fuels.

I think this is another distortion. We are applying the same standards to all schemes. I was a big hydrogen fan until I finally learned the details from reading critiques like the one I present here. Hydrogen, although still being promoted by die-hards, has been pretty much dropped by most environmentalists as a viable near-term energy option. In fact, what happened to hydrogen is what is and should be happening with corn ethanol. You are the corn-ethanol equivalent of the hydrogen-economy die-hard.

I can’t but think that the environmental community, as currently constituted, would have supported the use of lead over ethanol as its no-knock additive of choice for gasoline in the early 1920s.

In other words, environmentalists who oppose corn ethanol are imbeciles. That argument just put a hole in your foot.

When President George W. Bush first embraced the hydrogen economy, most environmentalists applauded, even though they conceded that for the first 10-20 years, hydrogen would be derived from fossil fuels.

This is the third time you have made an unsubstantiated statement pulled out of who knows what. Do you have a source showing that greater than 50 percent of those who consider themselves environmentalists supported that?

Indeed, so eager were they to jump-start hydrogen that Minnesota environmentalists helped enact a bill that defines hydrogen made from natural gas as a renewable fuel.

There are plenty of environmentalists around the country who have successfully lobbied government to subsidize their favorite energy scheme, but it is misleading to use a handful of examples as representative of the majority. And how are their efforts different from yours? This endless lobbying of government to subsidize competing energy schemes is ridiculous and you are just another player in that game.

When it comes to ethanol, reporters appear obligated by some unwritten rule of the profession to talk about whether ethanol uses more energy in the cultivation and processing of the crop than it contains. In the hundreds of interviews I’ve had with journalists about ethanol over the years, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times the net energy issue did not come up.

Are you suggesting they shouldn’t? I mean, seriously, if someone is promoting a fuel that consumes as much fossil fuel as it produces, we should know about it, because such a fuel should not be produced.

Articles about hydrogen in the mainstream, or alternative press, on the other hand, rarely talk about net energy.

This is the fourth time you have made an unsubstantiated statement — not that this one matters. We don’t make decisions based on the ratio of negative/positive articles found in the lay press. Your observations are biased. Talk about your media blitzes, have a look at this piece of propoganda.

This despite the fact that while the net energy of ethanol may be debated, there is no debate about the energetics of hydrogen. Made from fossil fuels, hydrogen is a net energy loser.

But that isn’t their argument. Their argument is exactly the same as yours: it’s not perfect, but it is a bridge to better technology to prepare the infrastructure for the coming of the hydrogen — or in your case the ethanol — economy.

But in 2005, a scientific journal published a new study by Pimentel and his collaborator, Tad Patzek. The study concluded that while corn-derived ethanol was a slight net energy loser, the energetics of biodiesel and ethanol made from cellulose were far worse.

The conversation about net energy went on as if nothing new had been added. The enemy was still corn. Pimentel and Patzek’s conclusion that other crops were much worse than corn as sources of transportation fuels, was filtered out. My old psychology professor called this process cognitive dissonance. We screen out what doesn’t gibe with preconceived notions. We hate corn. We don’t hate soybeans or grasses. Therefore the negative things Pimentel and Patzek said about corn we consider authoritative. Their negative comments about soybeans and grasses we ignore.

There are several errors here. First, you are subtly trying to discredit these professors by pointing out that they found biodiesel and cellulosic even more energy intensive. The conversation “went on” because biodiesel is being produced in small quantities to date and cellulosic not at all, not because of cognitive dissonance. Corn ethanol is the one being mass-produced. The debate over the others waits in the wings although you can go here to get a head start on biodiesel.

We hate corn? We are against environmental destruction and the fact that our government is using our money to promote it.

Corn is a transitional energy feedstock, but it has played a crucial role in creating the infrastructure for a carbohydrate economy. We are moving beyond corn, to more abundant feedstocks like cellulose. But a carbohydrate economy, where plants have an industrial role, would have been delayed by 20-30 years if not for corn.

Could you give us the source for the 20-30 year comment? Corn is not a transitional feedstock for a carbohydrate economy anymore than hydrogen made from fossil fuels is transitional for a hydrogen economy. We may want to move to more efficient, less environmentally destructive feedstocks, but we have not done so and corn as done nothing to get us there.

As you admit, it only takes a couple of hundred bucks to make a car E-85 compatible. So, you can scratch that from a list of needed infrastructure for ethanol. That could be accomplished in a matter of months, and what sense does it make to stick consumers with a couple of hundred bucks worth of ethanol compatibility if 99 percent of them don’t use it, as is being done today?

I also looked into what it would take to convert a corn ethanol refinery to a cellulosic one, and up to two-thirds of a given refinery would have to be redesigned. Those refineries are also optimally located to use corn, not some as-yet-to-be-determined feedstock. Those refineries are not establishing infrastructure. They are more likely to create resistance to new infrastructure, because investors will not want to tear them apart.

What does that leave us for infrastructure? Tanker trucks, tanker cars, and tanks in gas stations. All three are easily and quickly created to meet consumer demand, should there ever actually be demand for this crappy fuel by consumers.

Federal incentives made ethanol blends competitive with gasoline at the gas pump.

Good one … “at the gas pump.” The government duped consumers into thinking they were paying the same for ethanol when in reality they were paying twice as much through taxes.

To accomplish that the embryonic biofuels industry had to persuade its competitor, the oil industry, to use ethanol instead of its own product. As the same time the ethanol industry had to convince car companies, which had designed their engines hand in glove with the oil companies for 60 years, to allow ethanol into their gas tanks.

Actually, any business that thinks selling ethanol will make a profit, be it a gas station or oil company, will sell it. They don’t need “convincing.” How did the ethanol industry convince GM to launch its ridiculous “live green go yellow” campaign? Many enviros are under the impression that GM saw it as a way to market gas-hog SUVs as being green just because they had a couple of hundred bucks of ethanol-resistant tubing in their engines. In fact, that has sold a lot of gas hogs that will never see ethanol and has increased oil consumption by a billion gallons. And to ice the cake, the flex-fuel scam was used to manipulate the CAFE standards once again.

Today a national biofuel distribution network exists. Some 30 percent of all cars use ethanol blends.

Only because it has been forced at great cost down consumer’s throats. In a free market, it is the consumer who is supposed to be king, not business owners like farmers, refiners, and distributors.

All congressional bills that would increase the biofuels mandate also cap the amount of corn-derived ethanol at 15 billion gallons. After 2012, all additional ethanol capacity must be based on noncorn crops.

That’s right. This is a dead-end fuel. Its only reason to exist, other than for politicians to buy votes, is to ostensibly build infrastructure to transition to something better, and that argument is complete fluff as I have discussed above. There is virtually no “consumer” demand for this inefficient, expensive fuel. There are only heavily subsidized mandates for it. Calling that a market for it is really stretching the definition of market. Somebody tell us how many hundreds of billions this will have cost the American consumer by then? Someone else tell me the damage that will be done to the conservation reserve lands or leakage to other lands in other countries by then?

Cellulosic materials will be the prime feedstock. Some, like Vinod Khosla, a major proponent and investor in cellulosic ethanol plants, argues that his first plants, to be online by 2010, will produce ethanol competitively with $4 a bushel corn.

Cellulosic materials will may be the prime feedstock. Sugarcane is far more efficient than cellulosic. What makes you think that rainforests and grasslands around the world will not be plowed up to plant cane to supply us with our ethanol? Vinod paid a visit here not long ago. Interesting how similar his arguments are to yours. My comment was a little long-winded but worth a read, IMHO.

I fully agree with your thoughts on the role of electrification of transportation. That issue has been well covered here. David Roberts even has an acronym for it: URGE2, Use Renewably Generated Electricity Efficiently. However, that does not neutralize the damage to the environment currently being wrought by government-mandated agrofuels all across the planet. Using agrofuels in the engines of plug-in hybrid electric cars may well be part of the future. But whether it happens, and which fuels will win, will occur as a result of free-market forces and government performing its role of leveling playing fields for the competitors. This government interference and market distortion you promote is creating an ecological disaster.

Design policies to maximize the benefit to rural areas of using plant matter for industrial and energy uses. The key is local ownership of biorefineries.

The current ethanol boom has changed the structure of the industry. Today, over 90 percent of all new ethanol plants are absentee-owned. The typical new plant has a capacity of 100 million gallons or more, almost triple the average-size plant built in 2002, and making it very difficult to have majority local ownership.

A free market will not promote local ownership of biorefineries unless that model provides the best deal for consumers. Remember, the goal is not to promote rural living, it is to meet the needs of consumers, and that usually means giving them the best price. Already local ownership is being lost. You can’t stop it without further government distortion of the market. Oil companies will eventually own all biorefineries. Two years ago, the local nature of biodiesel was all the rage. Now our local refineries use oil transported from thousands of miles away and even from palm-oil plantations that are helping drive the orangutan to extinction. That ideal went down like a flaming meteor and it will for ethanol also, as you document above.

Performance standards specify outcomes. They specify an end result, but not how that result is achieved. They focus on ends and leave the design of means to entrepreneurs. Performance standards foster competition and innovation.

A contradiction wrapped in a contradiction. Corn ethanol exists solely because of government subsidization and mandates. If those things ended today, ethanol as a fuel would disappear and consumers and the ecosystems of the world would be better off for it. The Prius, the A123 battery, and hybrid electric bikes are the result of entrepreneurs and the free market. The government did not need to mandate their use or subsidize them.

Ethanol is just another energy scheme lined up with hundreds of others like hydrogen, biodiesel, and on and on. It is the biggest player only because it got massive government backing. It got massive government backing because politicians use it to buy votes from the Corn Belt. It is another agrofuel that is in reality worse in total for the planet than the fuel it is meant to replace. Agrofuels, as presently produced, are exacerbating deforestation and biodiversity loss. We don’t need more subsidies and mandates, we need a moratorium before the industry is too powerful to stop, assuming it isn’t already.