Skip to content
Grist home
TRIPLE your gift

Articles by David Morris

David Morris has been a consultant or adviser to the energy departments of Presidents Ford, Carter, Clinton, and George W. Bush. For six years, David served on a congressionally created advisory committee to the U.S. Department of Energy and USDA on biomass-related issues. David is vice president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and directs the Institute's New Rules Project.

All Articles

  • With the right rules in place, it could work

    Working Assets is my long-distance phone company. I love it dearly for its combination of business efficiency, social responsibility and progressive politics.

    Each month, my phone bill carries alerts that urge me to take action on a specific issue or two. Recent Citizen Actions suggest the gravity of the issues chosen: "Save Our Constitution," "Impeach Dick Cheney," "Close Guantanamo."

    This month Working Assets urged me to "Say No to Ethanol."

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

    A couple of years ago, I was waiting my turn to speak to a well-attended California conference on alternative fuels. For this gathering, alternative fuels included natural gas, clean diesel, fossil fueled derived hydrogen, coal-fired electricity, as well as wind energy and biofuels. The leadoff speaker, from the California Energy Commission, spoke warmly about all the alternative fuels under discussion. Except one. When it came to ethanol, he visualized his perspective with the metaphor of a giant hypodermic needle from Midwest corn farmers to California drivers. For him and, I suspect, most of California's state government, ethanol belongs in the same category as heroin.

    In the late 1990s, the nation discovered that MTBE, a widely used gasoline additive made of natural gas and petroleum-derived isobutylene was polluting ground water. The environmental community largely defended its continued use and vigorously opposed substituting ethanol. One well-respected New England environmental coalition raised the possibility that ethanol blends could cause fetal alcohol syndrome. Fill up your gas tank with 10 percent ethanol and your baby could be alcoholic, their report warned.

    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. 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 runup in corn prices that threatens to sentence millions more to starvation.

    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.

    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.

  • Toward a community-owned, decentralized biofuel future

    President Bush visits the Virginia Biodiesel Refinery in 2005. Photo: Biofuels won’t single-handedly solve the climate crisis, nor will they deliver energy independence. But a base of widely dispersed, farmer- and citizen-owned biofuel plants can displace significant amounts of fossil fuels — while also building local economies. What follows is a strategy for tweaking […]