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Bryce (NY Times) and ethanol: The whole truth and nothing but the truth

E85 pumpWhat’s up with the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research? While I often don’t agree with the scholars who write for it, I find its articles and books thoughtful and provocative.

My question concerning the Institute derives from a desire to build a now absent civil dialogue concerning policy issues affecting the U.S. The Institute, when a reasonably informed national dialogue on policy existed, was an important participant. Now, that it has been lost, the Institute’s agenda and body of work offers hope that it can be resurrected someday soon. In this context Robert Bryce’s article in today’s New York Times, “End the Ethanol Rip-Off” concerns me. His article is filled with factual and interpretative errors that skew his conclusions concerning the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).

Bryce asserts that corn ethanol is responsible for significant environmental problems particularly related to land use, harvesting and processing fuel. He also states that it generates higher food costs, and that it damages small engines. Finally, according to the author, ethanol’s price has been and is generally higher, much higher, than gasoline. The only thing he left out is that ethanol is the cause of global warming, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, unemployment, the trial and tribulations of Miss America contests and bouffant hairstyles in Texas.

No fuel used now in America is perfect. Certainly, the DNA of gasoline, which Bryce seems to champion, is much more harmful to the environment, and the nation’s need to reduce GHG emissions. Gasoline use also reflects significantly more public health problems and continues the nation’s dependence on imported fuels.

Let me try to summarize some of the facts that Bryce overlooks or does not seem to know:

  1. Although a cleaner burning fuel, E10 (10 percent ethanol) blended with gasoline does result in a small energy content gap that requires a purchase of additional E10 gasoline to secure mileage equivalency. But, up until recently, the lower price of E10, compared to gasoline, has more than made up for mileage differentials and slowed down the upward trend of the price of gasoline and put downward pressure on prices.
  2. E85, which the author does not mention, has been approved by the EPA for certain vehicle classes. Like E10, its use does result in lower mileage per gallon when compared to gasoline and also results in more mileage per BTU. The mileage gap is lower than the gap that Bryce indicates in his article. Again, before the decline of gas prices , the gap was more than made up by the lower costs of ethanol and its’ increased efficiency.
  3. There is no real consensus on the food vs. fuel debate. The World Bank has changed its position on this globally over the years and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has suggested that if there is a negative effect on food, it is very minor. Indeed, while the food vs. fuel argument has not yet been settled, most experts agree that increased oil prices contribute to increased food prices. The food vs. fuel argument has reflected an “on the one hand, on the other hand” dialogue. Perhaps more relevant, particularly with respect to corn, there are land use and processing techniques now being introduced that would mitigate possible problems. Certainly, corn is not in short supply and the price of corn to the consumer has not spiraled up significantly.
  4. The author also neglects the fact that natural gas- and cellulosic-based ethanol (as well as other feedstocks) maybe on the horizon. Investors have delayed involvement, primarily because of uncertainty concerning the market and gasoline prices. Its advent will likely lessen food vs. fuel issues and help lesson environmental concerns.
  5. Bryce suggests that ethanol, (again, he refers to E10 in his article), has a negative effect on engines. Most of the independent analysis of the impact of ethanol on engines, E10 as well as E15 and E85, suggest differently. The EPA has approved the sale of each blend with certain vehicular limitations with respect to E 15 and E 85.

Bryce spends much time talking about the cost to the consumer of ethanol and the so-called ethanol tax. Curiously, given his location in the Manhattan Institute, he neglects to mention the significant cost to the consumer of the failure of oil companies to open up the gasoline market to alternative fuels like ethanol. Try going to a “gas” station to buy E85 or to charge your electric vehicle. Good luck finding one near your home or easily on a long trip. Through tough franchise agreements, oil companies eliminate competition around the nation. I suspect the imputed tax caused by the oil companies’ monopoly or almost-monopoly position is quite higher, much higher, than the tax that Bryce suggests results from ethanol use. The Institute should pay for a copy of Adam Smith and give it to the author.

Bryce’s article does not really contribute to a needed transparent debate over Renewable Fuel Standards or the wisdom of alternative fuels. It mixes up concepts and facts concerning energy content, car performance and efficiency. It sweeps over serious issues with respect to food vs. fuel and the environment with a broken brush or broom. Its conclusion concerning ethanol and implicitly other alternative fuels is inconsistent with his assumed anti-regulatory position and belief in the market place. We need such a debate, one that reflects a comparison between alternative fuels such as ethanol and gasoline as well as one that accommodates a needed transitional strategy between alternate and renewable fuels.

 

Photo Credit: East TN Clean Fuels Coalition

Robert Rapier loves methanol

Robert Rapier – “R2” as he calls himself in good scientific notation – is one of the smartest people out there when it comes to energy. A master’s graduate in chemical engineering from Texas A&M University, Rapier is chief technology officer and executive vice president for Merica International, a renewable energy company. He also writes a regular column at EnergyTrendsInsider.com.

And he is a big enthusiast of methanol.

In a series of recent columns, Rapier has made a strong case that methanol is our best option for replacing foreign oil. He believes it can be done cleanly and in a way that also reduces carbon emissions. Unfortunately, one of the biggest impediments, according to Rapier, is the huge political momentum behind corn ethanol, which he regards as an inferior fuel. He is also highly critical of the biofuels effort, which has attracted so much attention in the form of venture capital from Silicon Valley.

“You can buy methanol today for around $1 per gallon,” he said. “This is a big, well-established business that does not receive heavy subsidies and government support as ethanol does. On a per BTU basis, unsubsidized methanol costs $17.61 per million BTUs. You can buy ethanol today – ethanol that has received billions in taxpayer subsidies – for $1.60 per gallon. On a per BTU basis, heavily subsidized and mandated ethanol sells for $21.03 per million BTUs.”

Yes, you read that correctly. We are paying 20% more for ethanol, enabled via highly paid lobbyists, heavy government intervention, taxpayer funds and protectionist tariffs than we are for methanol that has long been produced subsidy-free.

Unfortunately, the decision to mandate ethanol consumption while ignoring methanol has been based much more on politics than on the two fuels comparative advantages. “The fact is, methanol simply has not had the same sort of political favoritism, but is in [Rapier’s] opinion a far superior option to ethanol as a viable, long-term energy option for the world.”

Where biofuels are concerned, Rapier states that the effort has always been predicated on the assumption that we will eventually switch from corn ethanol to much more abundant, non-food cellulosic feedstocks such as switch grass. We just have to wait until somebody comes up with a way to break down cellulose. What investors do not seem to realize is that techniques for breaking down cellulose have been around since the 19th century. They just have proved to be too expensive.

But “high costs have never been a deterrent for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who wielded Moore’s Law as the solution to every problem. In their minds, the advanced biofuel industry would mimic the process by which computer chips continually became faster and cheaper over time. But advanced biofuels amounted to a fundamentally different industrial process that was already over 100 years old. A decade into this experiment it is clear that Moore’s Law isn’t solving the cost problem.”

(Actually, if you read George Gilder’s latest book, “Knowledge and Power,” you would realize that mathematicians such as Claude Elwood Shannon and John von Neumann have determined that information as an entirely separate entity from energy and matter. Moore’s Law applies only to information, not matter and energy.)

Rapier says biofuels will never succeed until the effort at developing them is redirected into producing methanol rather than ethanol once again:

For methanol, we can produce it from biomass via a similar process to how it is produced for $1 per gallon today. There are numerous biomass gasifiers out there. Some are even portable. They do not require high fossil fuel inputs and they utilize a much larger fraction of the biomass. They aren’t limited to cellulose. They gasify everything – cellulose, hemicellulose, lignin, sugars and proteins – all organic components. And if there is also a heating application, the combined heat and fuel or power efficiency of a biomass to methanol via gasification route is going to put cellulosic ethanol to shame. In any case, the efficiency of biomass gasification to methanol is going to put cellulosic ethanol to shame, because it doesn’t have to deal with all of that water present in the ethanol process.

Altogether, Rapier argues that methanol has a much broader potential feedstock, is easier and cheaper to produce and could be manufactured in much larger quantities than corn ethanol. And this doesn’t even consider the possibility of synthesizing it from our superabundant supplies of natural gas. The problem is that “methanol doesn’t have a big lobby and 42 senators from farm states it can count on for perpetual support.”

At Fuel Freedom Foundation, we believe we should pursue all these options – ethanol, biofuels, compressed natural gas (CNG), liquefied natural gas (LNG) and electric cars. They all offer the possibility of reducing the $350 billion we shell out each year for imported oil. But we can’t help but admire Rapier’s observation that the methanol option is greatly underappreciated. The reasons are: 1) the EPA restrictions that make it illegal to use in car engines and 2) the lack of any large constituency such as the farm lobby that stands to gain from it. For that reason alone we’re very encouraged by Rapier’s writings and look forward to more in the future.