Weird Science

By Bob Dinneen | July 15, 2010
cience is all the rage in Washington, D.C. these days. Opponents of ethanol rally around the call for "science" in efforts to stymie the growth of this industry at every turn.

Take, for example, the push to increase ethanol blending levels to up to 15 percent. In a recent column in The Hill, the head of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association personally called me out and claimed that I was ignoring the "science" behind E15 and its alleged damage to engines. I would note here that this is the same industry, Big Oil, whose "science" caused it to express concerns for the welfare of walruses in the Gulf of Mexico in its proposals to drill deep in Gulf waters. That's rightwalruses in the Gulf of Mexico.

Or, perhaps we should yield to the "science" of environmental activists who claim that American ethanol should be penalized for carbon emissions that result from increased oil use around the globe. You have heard me ridicule this theory before, known as the global rebound effect. As postulated, increased use of ethanol in America would reduce the nation's consumption of oil thereby lowering the world price for crude. As a result of lower prices, demand for oil would surge in other parts of the world, leading to increased driving and tailpipe emissions. The theory argues ethanol should be penalized for increased carbon emissions that result. Follow that? If you do, I have beachfront property outside Phoenix I would like to talk to you about.

Since everyone seems to want to talk about the science, let's examine some of the most recent work done on ethanol and American agriculture.

Most recently, research from Stanford University published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the world avoided significant greenhouse gas emissions as a result of the tremendous advancements in agricultural technologies. In particular, yield improvements like those witnessed in American corn production helped saved hundreds of thousands of acres of rainforest and native prairies that might otherwise have been needed to feed a growing population. Such improvements have allowed farmers to continue providing food for the world while developing other markets such as biofuels. This is the kind of science ethanol's opponents don't wish to discuss.

Then, there is the latest survey of ethanol biorefineries that notes reductions of 28 percent and 32 percent in energy and water use, respectively, all since 2001. Moreover, ethanol yields have increased by more than 5 percent over the same period. This work, published in Biotechnology Letters, demonstrates the continued improvements in efficiencies that are the calling card of America's ethanol industry.
These improvements also feed into a recent report from the USDA that finds ethanol returns up to 230 percent more energy than it takes to produce, up nearly 70 percent since 2004. Unfortunately, USDA didn't use the ethanol biorefinery energy use figures from Biotechnology Letters. Had it done so, the energy returns of ethanol would have climbed to nearly 260 percent.

Last, but certainly not least, is the recent work done by Purdue University that shows the so-called indirect land use change (ILUC) penalty for corn-based ethanol has been grossly exaggerated. Since the idea was first proffered in 2008, the estimate of corn ethanol ILUC emissions has dropped 87 percent.

Science is important. It should be the foundation upon which policy and regulations are based. Admittedly, sifting through the "science" offered by opponents of ethanol and clean energy can be challenging, but it cannot be taken lightly. Too often good science is cast aside by our opponents in favor of "weird science" that better suits their political motives.

America's energy, economic and environmental future may very well hinge on getting the science of energy right.

Here's hoping Congress and President Obama see through all the weird science.

Bob Dinneen is president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association. Reach him at (202) 289-3835.