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Born to doubt and distrust

The conversion of corn to ethanol is booming. U.S. production plants, located mostly in the Midwest, are approaching 5 billion gallons per year and new facilities are popping up faster than corn stalks. Yet, there is a continued undercurrent that says we are being led the wrong direction by government and industry and that this entire effort to replace petroleum with biofuels is folly.

Isolating the naysayers is easy; disposing of them is difficult. The petroleum industry launched the initial criticism shortly after Jimmy Carter encouraged farmers to take their excess production of corn and distill it into ethanol. The product may or may not have been to blame, but the vehicles of the early 1980s had a buildup of petroleum material in tanks and fuel lines that the solvent ethanol removed and deposited in the carburetors. It was the perfect reason for many to declare that “gasohol” was harmful and to never use it again.

We then moved into the second generation of ethanol plants, unleaded gasoline and cars that had injectors and no carburetors. The product was sound and the vehicles burned it with few problems, but those few who experienced difficulty screamed loudly and infected others who vowed never to use it again.

Now we are 26 years past the Soviet Grain Embargo that started it all. We have the highest quality ethanol yet produced and a distribution system that blends it with gasoline and distributes to literally every filling station in the mid-section of the country. Some states have eliminated the requirement that ethanol be labeled at the pump so the consumer who chooses octane of 89 or above doesn’t know that they are using it. The public complaint, on a 10 percent blend of ethanol in gasoline, is literally zero.

Problem solved? Not quite. Welcome the next generation of opposition. They are scientists who have determined it is their calling to prove that it takes more petroleum energy to make ethanol than the alcohol delivers to the vehicle. The amount of media coverage they get is amazing to me and I’m in the media. The billions of gallons of ethanol production and millions of cars running on it are a quiet whisper of endorsement for the new fuel yet their questionable calculations are a loud “No” that everyone hears.

I spoke with Dr. David Patzek, associate professor of chemical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley and he strongly maintains that ethanol made from corn is unwise and unsustainable. He says that the energy balance, showing ethanol is a net loser, must be computed from all petroleum-based inputs, plus transportation. He even adds the petroleum energy required to build the tractors that farm the land.

Dr. Patzek, when confronted with the question of why he insists on putting this research forward, denies connection with the oil industry and says it’s his “hobby” to figure such things. He acts hurt that anyone would criticize him for such academic endeavors. When asked what he’d do instead, he just indicates that the conversion of corn to ethanol is not the right answer. He is a little more positive about biodiesel—plant and animal fat made into a replacement for diesel fuel—but not much.

In late January, other scientists at Berkeley published research in the journal Science that sharply contradicts Dr. Patzek’s views. It appears that faculty wars will rage on.

My only analogy is “The Poppers,” a couple who were urban planners from New Jersey who developed a theory, while stuck in traffic, that the Plains should be depopulated of people and returned to the bison. Talk of the “Buffalo Commons” went on for 20 years in Kansas and Nebraska. I even did an AgriTalk show with Frank Popper and his arguments were laughable. Are we that introspective or just starved for entertainment?

My conclusion is that it’s not them, it’s us. We just aren’t genetically capable of disregarding criticism and moving ahead. We fear failure and any alarm is heeded even though it may be false and self serving. Perhaps that keeps us safe as a species, but it also prevents us from breaking out of debilitating and destructive circumstances. Perhaps we are more tribal than we wish to admit.

Ethanol production has evolved a great deal in the first 25 years and it will continue to do so. It is influenced by government subsidization, as is all of agriculture, but the end goal is being met: Fuel from our crops is flowing and it is displacing oil. The President of the United States, in the State of the Union speech, offered research money to make ethanol from switchgrass or other biomass in the years ahead and pilot plants are already attempting to do so. Biotechnology is being used to breed plants that yield starch that is larger in volume and more easily convertible to ethanol. Corn may not remain the major feedstock for ethanol plants for long.

Still, we ask ourselves if we are doing the right thing. The question that is more telling is: “Are we following the best pathway considering the circumstances we face?” In spite of those who like to say “No” just because it gives them a sense of power and those who offer up science to defend their preconceived opinions, the answer to the question is: “Yes.”