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Will Ethanol Save Us or Sucker Us?

Tonight’s Great Debate will tackle pros and cons of biofuels


Robert Bryce, a managing editor at Energy Tribune magazine (left), faces off with Sean O’Hanlon, executive director of the American Biofuels Council.

Is the subsidized production of ethanol “the biggest and longest-running robbery of American taxpayers in history,” or do biofuels, such as ethanol, beat petroleum-based fuels “hands down, in every category”?

That is one of several issues that will be deliberated this evening at Boston University’s 25th Great Debate, a biannual event presented by the College of Communication and featuring two professionals and a student taking either side of an important and timely issue. The overriding question tonight is whether renewable energy sources should be critical components of U.S. energy policy.

Assertion number one, that ethanol is a scam, comes from Robert Bryce, a managing editor at Energy Tribune magazine and author of Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of “Energy Independence.” Bryce will argue, with help from Kenneth P. Green, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Ashan Walpita (SMG’09), that renewable energy sources have no place on the U.S. list of important energy policy items to be pursued.

Assertion number two, that biofuels are preferable to petroleum-based fuels, is put forward by Sean O’Hanlon, executive director of the American Biofuels Council, who will push for the inclusion of biofuels in national energy policy. O’Hanlon will present his case with help from R. Brooke Coleman, president of the New Fuels Alliance and founder of the REAP (Renewable Energy Action Project) Coalition, and Neil St. Clair (CAS’08, COM’08), a veteran of two debates.

Robert Zelnick, a COM professor of journalism and moderator of the debate, says tonight’s dialectic promises to have some interesting twists and turns. “This one is a bit counterintuitive,” says Zelnick. “The basic question suckers you in, because the obvious answer is, ‘Why not turn to biofuels?’ I think both sides are going to come to this armed with the latest science.”

For a preview of some of the evening’s possible twists and turns, BU Today put a few questions to Bryce and O’Hanlon.

BU Today: What are the main problems with biofuels?
Let me be clear about where I stand on ethanol. It is perhaps the biggest and longest-running robbery of American taxpayers in history. The corn ethanol scam is the essence of fiscal insanity: we are making subsidized motor fuel out of the single most subsidized crop in America. And we are subjecting ourselves to a myriad of other problems that include the perversion of our presidential selection process, rapidly increasing food prices, worse air quality, depletion of our water resources, pollution of our water resources, increased oil consumption, worsening greenhouse gas emissions, and that’s just a partial list.

O’Hanlon: Currently the problems with biofuels come from lack of enough available feedstock and high prices, since most of what is currently used in the United States is derived from commodities such as corn and soybeans. That situation will improve as we move to nonfood crops for biofuels.

How does the production of biofuels impact the price of food?
They really don’t. If you look at where the real input costs are, you see oil every step of the way. The other factor is the increased demand for grains around the world. Also, what most people are not told is that after the juices have been extracted from the corn to make ethanol, the leftover dried distiller grains are used as feed for livestock. Ultimately, there is more food available because of biofuels rather than less. I’ve often wondered why no one questions the insanity of the notion that we would produce fuel at the expense of starving people. Who would we sell our fuel to then?

Bryce: The U.S. department of agriculture estimates that global grain demand will grow by 5.2 percent this year, and fully half of that growth in demand will come from U.S. consumption of corn for ethanol. And Congress is making the problem worse. In December, Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which requires the consumption of 36 billion gallons of ethanol by 2020, a fivefold increase over current mandated production levels. In 2006, 20 percent of the U.S. corn crop — some two billion bushels — was diverted into ethanol production. By 2009, according to the National Corn Growers Association, some four billion bushels — about one-third of the expected crop — will be used to make motor fuel.

This is madness. At the same time that the global economy heads for rougher times, food prices are soaring. And those prices will increase anxiety among consumers, who will further reduce their discretionary spending. When it comes to food, Congress has created a negative feedback loop that will reverberate in the global economy for years to come.

Is it true that biofuels are worse than gasoline in terms of greenhouse gas emissions?
Several studies have shown this. I’ll cite just one of them. Last month, Science magazine published a study that found that when accounting for land-use changes, corn ethanol production “nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years.”

O’Hanlon: Absolutely not. I dare anyone to make a line item comparison of petroleum to biofuels. It is a very eye-opening experience. Biofuels win hands down in every category.

What area, if any, has the greatest potential for replacing petroleum fuels with nonpetroleum fuels?
I think there is great potential for using more natural gas. It is a good fuel for terrestrial transportation, but the United States is making very little use of it. For instance, Brazil (which gets praised for its production of ethanol) has 10 times as many natural gas–fueled vehicles as the United States. And that’s true even though the United States has more than 10 times as many motor vehicles as Brazil. Eventually, I think electric cars will become more viable. But for that to happen, we will need a big breakthrough in battery technology. That said, electric cars will need electricity. Where will the bulk of that power come from? For the next 50 to 75 years, it will likely be coming from coal.

O’Hanlon: I see a great deal of potential for success in biofuels from algae and clean hydrogen. We have learned that you can produce more than one type of biofuel from micro-algae production (biodiesel, ethanol, and even some hydrogen), and we will start to see that become commercially scalable within the next 36 months, if not sooner. There have also been advances in extracting hydrogen from organic matter that is more efficient than ethanol from corn. Hydrogen may be further out than any other biofuel, but we will ultimately have to get to a hydrogen economy. There simply is no other way around it. Relying strictly on oil is no longer an option.

The Great Debate will take place Wednesday, April 2, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Tsai Performance Center, 685 Commonwealth Ave. It is open to all on a first-come, first-seated basis. Click here for more information about the Great Debate.

Art Jahnke can be reached at jahnke@bu.edu.



One Comment on Will Ethanol Save Us or Sucker Us?

  • Anonymous on 04.04.2008 at 2:49 pm

    the guy on the left looks goofy… but besides that, I think he makes a great argument (even if I don’t agree with it one hundred percent)

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