This is my formal rebuttal to Brooke Coleman (director of the Renewable Energy Action Project), specifically to comments found in Tom Philpott’s latest corn ethanol article. I’m using my access to the bully pulpit to pull it out of comments, like I did the last time a corn ethanol enthusiast joined the discussion.

Welcome to the best environmental blog on the planet, Brooke. You don’t seem to have a very high opinion of this community, but maybe you’ll warm up to us. I don’t speak for the whole community of course, I’m just one of the many who come here to learn and engage in reasoned debate.

You seem to think that anything is better than oil. But believe it or not, in the real world, we sometimes have to pick between the lesser of two evils, at least until something better comes along.

Plowing under the world’s remaining grasslands and forests to grow industrial agrofuels dwarfs the damage done by oil spills. What happens when you take grain off the world food market and stuff it into American gas tanks? I’ll tell you. Someone somewhere on this planet takes advantage of the high prices to plant more of it to fill the hole in the human food chain. Where is the arable land they need to do that? It is under an existing carbon sink or has another crop on it already. The second leading cause of global warming is deforestation. How hard is that concept to understand? Global warming is global. What we do here screws everybody.

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Using less oil is not the same as replacing it with ethanol. Using less oil is a better strategy than replacing it, because corn ethanol is worse than oil for the environment. My family has reduced its use of liquid transport fuel about 80% in the last few years while improving our standard of living. Simplistic, myopic viewpoints do not cut the mustard in today’s world. Corn ethanol is a horrifically wasteful use of natural resources, tax dollars, energy, and effort, just to reduce oil consumption a fraction of a percent. You could obtain the same goal by simply using less oil. Last time I looked, the Prius fleet alone saves more gas annually than all the ethanol produced in 2001.

Instead of lobbying the government to stop subsidizing competing energy schemes, one group after another lobbies the government to support their favored energy scheme — corn ethanol, cellulosic, soy biodiesel, hydrogen, nuclear, coal, and on and on it goes.

People tend to not understand what actually goes on in fuel markets, and this post is more of the same. The gist of this post is that ethanol is a scam, and it needs to be bailed out by legislation.

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A) Corn ethanol has been sucking from the government teat for how many decades now, Brooke?

B) If it doesn’t need to be bailed out, why do you support the bailout? Of course it needs to be bailed out by legislation. If the subsidies stopped tomorrow, corn ethanol would disappear about two days later, as it should. There is no real market for this fuel. It is mostly going into gas tanks as an additive, by government fiat. Consumers aren’t clamoring for it now, and they certainly won’t if the huge subsidies offered by fellow taxpayers’ dry up.

C) Corn ethanol is a scam.

Actually, ethanol is currently a dollar cheaper than wholesale gasoline, and guess what, the oil companies are not buying any more of it. In other words, ethanol is competing quite admirably with gasoline

Actually not. I just Googled the cost of gas and E85 for this month and when adjusted for the lower gas mileage, E85 is still more expensive than gasoline (huge blending subsidy aside). Here is my source for the prices. I cut and pasted them into a spreadsheet. Let me know if you want a copy of the spreadsheet.

But why isolate ethanol? Fossil fuels gets 86% of all energy subsidies between 2005-09, and you’re complaining about ethanol? Why the free pass to oil? Heck, even the ethanol subsidy is paid to oil companies. And how come you left out that ethanol demand increased corn prices, which took corn off the corporate farm welfare roles to the tune of $6 billion in 2006?

Grist contributors have written millions of words on the problems with fossil fuels. This particular article was about the problems associated with corn ethanol. You can’t seriously expect Tom to write a paragraph on the ills of oil to balance every paragraph he writes about the ills of corn ethanol. Tom has not misled anyone.

Consumers here and all around the world are dancing with glee that they have reduced the welfare to the American farm industry ($6 billion-3.5 billion) by paying higher prices for the corn they must purchase thanks to more government distortion of the market.

You rob Peter to pay Paul … squeeze the cost of ethanol to the taxpayer from one end of the balloon to the other. This is your opportunity to explain why the retail cost of gasoline is the same within a few cents in Europe, Canada, and the United States when adjusted for taxes. Are they all coincidentally applying the same government subsidies to gasoline or could the reality be that the price of gasoline is primarily controlled by the market value of global crude oil and that subsidies make little difference in the cost of gasoline at the pump?

Cherry picking subsidies in the energy space is a useless and not very sophisticated way of advocating for change in my opinion. Studies: you seem to like studies that hammer ethanol and leave out the ones that dont. Both Minnesota and UC-Berk have said that corn ethanol might only have a 12% benefit over gasoline, but have also admitted that some corn ethanol plants do 40% better. EPA says 21%. DOE says 27-36%. Instead of again screaming bad!

Odd, your list is missing other studies that show corn ethanol is worse than fossil fuels. The above studies were all unaware of the higher nitrous oxide release, found by the international team of researchers headed by a Noble Laureate. You need to compare all positives and all negatives to come up with a net positive or negative, as this study did:

why not advocate for carbon standards to incent good ethanol?

First, because Tom’s article isn’t about the carbon market. Secondly, because carbon standards assume energy schemes would compete with each other based on a price on greenhouse gases — corn would be crushed by a GHG standard. A recent study in the Atmospheric Journal of Chemistry and Physics has shown it may be up to 50% worse than fossil fuels, because of greater than realized nitrous oxide emissions.

A recent study in Science shows plowing up Conservation Reserve carbon sinks to plant more corn releases twice as much carbon as the corn would remove over a thirty year period (15-30% of US emissions are being absorbed by our carbon sinks). The Swiss study above gives corn ethanol an environmental score that is many times worse than fossil fuels.

Now I suggest you look deeper into reports to better understand GHG. That report attached all corn production to ethanol’s GHG impact. In other words, it falsely assumed that if no ethanol, then no corn, which is of course absurd. If the goal is to quantify the real world impact of ethanol, then assuming that if ethanol goes away corn field will revert back to golden fields is silly. That report is getting hammered for that.

The absurdity is that more corn is being planted in place of other crops, by plowing under Conservation Reserve land and other carbon sinks. You are telling us that the less corn we plant, the less environmental damage it will do. And you are right. And you just shot yourself in the foot.

Cellulosic: On what do you base that conclusion? It seems to me you like to make 35K foot statements about things. There’s more dough in cellulosic than there ever has been, more companies, more political will, and yes, the cost of enzymatic breakdown has plummeted in the last five years. Call these companies up. You reference the bridge from corn to cellulosic; dont downplay that. Most of the corn ethanol players have major investments in cellulosic.

Seriously, go read the link provided by greyflcn. Read a few more of his links while you are at it. You seem to be a little behind the learning curve. You seem to think that because gamblers wanting to get richer have plowed dough into cellulosic it must be a sure bet. Have you mortgaged your home and put it all into cellulosic?

It is a moot argument in any case. We don’t need to provide infrastructure for your coming ethanol economy, or someone else’s hydrogen or biodiesel economy. If a real consumer market were to ever spring into existence, manufacturers would respond in very short order with the necessary hoses in the engines and tanker trucks and gas stations because they would all be motivated to do so to make this dough.

One last thought: I have to say that I dont understand the “green minds” that wish ethanol would go away. They always seem to forget that if not ethanol, then oil. Oil is an amazing thing to support these days, especially on the Grist. You could throw a dozen more studies at me, but I hope you have dug into them all a little deeper. Oilies are very good at keeping the focus off them and on the alternatives. You are playing their fiddle nicely.

Wrong. If not ethanol, use less oil. Burning E85 in a car that gets the American average of 24 MPG is a ham-fisted and comically inefficient way to use less oil and reduce GHGs. Burning gasoline in a car that gets 48 MPG is less destructive, less wasteful.

The “if not ethanol then oil” comment is an on-the-ground reality.

Actually not. Using less oil is far less environmentally destructive and far, far less expensive than replacing oil with ethanol.

On fantasy island, where we could simply flip a switch and stop burning liquid fuels all together, I would agree with you.

That is a strawman argument. Nobody expects to stop burning liquid fuels altogether. We do expect to burn much less of it via greater efficiency (less waste).

But we’re currently 200 billion gallons per year of liquid fuel combustion away from fantasy island (aka blog island).

Has it ever occurred to you that biofuel enthusiasts are the ones living in fantasy land? My family has reduced oil consumption about 80% simply by replacing low mileage vehicles with high mileage ones. Nobody expects us to replace more than a fraction of our oil use with biofuels. Blogs are places for debate and places to learn. It is obvious from your comments that you have already learned a lot by coming here although I’m sure you thought you knew it all upon your arrival. Blogs might save this planet.

While ivory tower positions look good on the Gristmill and probably fire up the unplugged, this will be the only domain of the green movement if those positions don’t become more based in political and economic reality. Just an opinion.

A very poorly defended opinion might I add.

You guys dont really understand fuel markets at the granular level, and your critique of ethanol in particular is extremely superficial.

Your erroneous comments on the price of ethanol along with your lack of understanding of why the global market for crude is the primary driver of the price of gasoline at the pump, combined with your ignorance of the ramifications of crop leakage to other parts of the planet, suggests to me that this shoe belongs on your foot.

Biofuels are not clean enough for you to warrant inclusion in the clean energy discussion, and it ticks you off that people have been over doing it on the green stuff, so you over do it on the criticisms.

A week does not go by that somebody does not discuss biofuels on this blog. The rest of your sentence is specious.

Your anger at biofuels would be better directed at the oil companies, that are stealing your wallet while you scream to the world that biofuels are not as clean as people think.

Nobody is angry here. Nobody is screaming. Frustrated, maybe. We have rational debates here. We share thoughts, links, research. If a given biofuel is worse than a given fossil fuel it would be foolish to promote it under the auspice that it might lead to something better some day, as you do.

Communities like this are increasingly marginalized, because they rarely know the score.

Then explain to us what you are doing here? In all seriousness, Grist is probably one of the best environmental sites on the planet, and so is the Grist blog. It is one of the few places you can find open, rational debate on environmental issues. The contributors and commenters here know the score as well as anyone anywhere. Take a gander at this excellent forum while you’re here.

Imagine if the entire green community rallied around the idea that oil companies should be completely stripped of subsidies to level the playing field. The world would support you. The alternatives would be able to compete and would not have to beg for handouts to stay in business with a subsidized Exxon.

Cool idea. Rather than admonish Grist to do that, why don’t you redirect your own organization’s goals and join forces with the likes of Ron Steenblik to get government to stop listening to special interests (e.g., corn ethanol proponents)?

Until then, keep playing their fiddle … biofuels are bad, biofuels are bad.

Will do, El Capitan! Biofuels have turned out to be not only more expensive but also more environmentally destructive than what they were meant to replace. On a planet of 6.5 billion people, we find a biofuel with a razor thin to non-existent return on energy and GHG reductions being propped up by politicians who are funneling tax dollars to the farm industry in return for votes. The only beneficiary of this policy is that miniscule percentage of the global population who grow corn in America and the politicians buying votes from them.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, people are starting to get hungry. Hopefully, other countries will grow grain to replace that being burned in American gas tanks before famine sets in. Unfortunately, they will have to do so by increasing global warming via the destruction of more ecosystem carbon sinks.

Thanks for the chance to debate this important issue with someone with a different perspective. You guys, along with global warming skeptics, seem to be getting fewer and further between.