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

Innovation in oil & gas — it ain’t over yet

To read the newspapers these days, you’d think that all the innovation in energy is involved in bringing down the cost of solar panels or building even bigger blades for windmills. But innovation still continues apace in oil and gas, both in pulling them out of the ground and in finding new ways to use them.

“We haven’t been giving the big oil companies enough credit,” said Dominic Basulto in The Washington Post. “ Sure, we may see their print ads or watch as they tout their accomplishments on TV, but deep down, many of us believe that the brightest minds have moved on to something new in energy innovation. But that’s not true.”

That’s important because if we’re going to use our abundant natural gas supplies to wean ourselves off of foreign oil, we’re going to have to be sure the current superabundance of natural gas isn’t just a flash in the pan. Moreover, we’re going to need innovation in making the transition to methane-based liquid alcohol fuels easier as well.

As most people have heard by now, even our best technologies can’t extract more than about 10-20% out of an oil or gas reservoir from the earth. Simply doubling that rate would give us access to huge, new quantities of domestic fuels.

There’s also a concern that fracking wells will have a much shorter lifespan than traditional gas and oil wells. Then there’s all that natural gas being flared off in the Bakken. Ending that conspicuous form of waste will require some new technology.

All these problems are being tackled through innovation, however, and that’s what Basulto is talking about.

Although everybody knows about fracking — the technology of forcing sand and water into the rock to break it up — few realize that the real novelty that makes up the current upturn in production possible is horizontal drilling, which allows access to entire geological strata without making the territory look like a pincushion.

“Today, drilling rigs are so good that they can punch holes in the earth that are two miles deep, turn the drill bit 90 degrees, drill another two miles horizontally, and arrive within a few inches of the target,” said Robert Bryce, author of “Smaller, Faster, Lighter, Denser, Cheaper,” a book about innovation in the energy industry. But horizontal drilling hasn’t stood still. ExxonMobil has developed an “extended reach” technology that can push outward several miles further deep in the earth. “Extended reach reduces our environmental footprint and in offshore applications will limit our presence in the marine environment,” says the company’s website. It may have been developments like this that prompted President Obama to give a green light to exploration off the Atlantic Coast from Delaware to Florida last month.

The same innovations are occurring with natural gas fracking. Innovators have made an improvement called “sleeve technology” that surrounds the drill bit and allows highly accurate placement of stimulation treatments. The result is that wells can be drilled twice as fast as a few years ago, at a lower cost. With increased precision in both drilling and fracturing, wells are being made more productive as well. Erika Johnsen on Hot Air said, “Data from the Energy Information Administration’s Drilling and Production Report shows that a Marcellus Shale well completed by a rig in April 2014 can be expected to yield over 6 million cubic feet of natural gas per day (Mcf/d) more than a well completed by that rig in that formation in 2007.” That’s a huge improvement in the space of seven short years.

All this is good news for the effort of substituting natural gas-based ethanol or methanol for foreign oil in our cars. After all, one of the fundamental considerations is that there will be enough natural gas around to keep the price reasonable. With so many competing proposals for employing natural gas — electrical generation, the industrial revival, LNG exports, etc. — it’s crucial that we keep expanding production.

So it’s encouraging to hear the news from Clean Energy Fuels, T. Boone Pickens’ baby, which has been building a “CNG Highway” across the country to service long-haul tractor-trailers. CEF has just completed the first leg of this nationwide network, connecting Los Angeles and Houston.

But much of the nation still lies outside the reach of natural gas pipelines and CEF is figuring out a way to serve them, as well. Last month the company opened a filling station in Pembroke, New Hampshire that will be served by a “virtual pipeline” of high-tech tractor-trailers making round-the-clock deliveries. This will allow the station to pump 10 million gasoline-gallon-equivalents (GGE), twice the volume of CEF’s largest existing station. More important, it will open up large areas of the country that have not had access to CNG. This natural gas-based substitute will sell for 30% less than gasoline.

Technology never stands still. Sometimes it forces us to give up things that have become familiar or even seemingly permanent. But as Robert Bryce said, the new technology is usually “faster, smaller, lighter, denser and cheaper.” And in the case of methane-based liquid fuels, it will mean freeing ourselves from foreign oil as well.