Adventures in Ethics and Science

Inescapable trade-offs?

Because the three-dimensional world has had me in a headlock (and a heat-wave), I’m tardy in passing on the news that ScienceBlogs is hosting a new blog, Next Generation Energy, that is slated to run from July 9 to October 9. On this blog, Seed editors, ScienceBlogs bloggers, and outside experts will be discussing future energy policy and alternative energy solutions.

Among other things, the folks at Next Generation Energy will have a weekly question they’ll try to answer from their various perspectives. This week’s question asks for predictions about the viable non-oil (and non-corn-ethanol) energy sources that might in the pipeline (figuratively, if not literally). It looks like there’s a potential for some really engaging discussions here.

And this brings us to the trade-offs.

The first sort of trade-off I have in mind is the sort that seems to come with most of our available energy choices. Especially with the newer options on the table, we seem to fixate on the advantages without taking full account of the foreseeable disadvantages.

For example, ethanol made from corn seemed at first (to a lot of folks, anyway) like a promising alternative to petroleum-based fuels. Unlike petroleum, corn is a renewable resource, and ethanol is less poluting to burn in your internal combustion engine than gasoline. However, as my gardening books all indicate, corn is a “heavy feeder”, a crop whose plants greedily suck the nutrients out of the soil … which means the fields in which it is grown commercially get big inputs of fertilizer. Much of this fertilizer is made from petroleum, which is not a renewable resource. Plus, the corn used to make ethanol for fuel is corn that people can’t eat (and that the food-animals that many people eat can’t eat).

Perhaps cellulosic ethanol made of plant matter like switchgrass could work. People don’t eat switchgrass, nor do they pour a lot of fertilizer into growing it, but like corn, it’s a plant using photosynthesis to store energy from the sun. Problem solved, right?

Maybe not. Large scale farming of switchgrass for fuelstocks hasn’t happened yet, so we don’t actually know if it will be possible to grow it sustainably (or if it, too, will end up requiring inputs of petroleum based fertilizer). We don’t know whether the amount of switchgrass required to feed our hungry cars will cut into the land available to grow crops to feed our bodies. How much energy will it require to harvest the switchgrass? How much energy will it require to turn it into ethanol? What effect will the growing and harvest of the switchgrass have on the soil’s ability to act as a carbon sink?

All that shiny promise suddenly looks more speculative.

I worry that if we have our hearts set on finding some new energy source that will let us move forward without changing any of our energy consumption habits, the trade-offs will end up smacking us in the face. So I’m hopeful that the discussion at Next Generation Energy will keep bringing us back to the big picture rather than losing the actual costs (whether monetary or environmental) in the shadows.

There’s another trade-off worth mentioning: the Next Generation Energy is being sponsored by Shell. Remember Shell? Yeah, so do I.

Shell is a multinational corporation that is interested in selling its product. At this moment, that product is in large part petroleum, but they want to sell you something when the petroleum runs out or when you’ve lost your taste for it. So new energy sources are of interest to Shell.

If a multinational corporation shifts from selling us something that’s bad for the environment to selling us something that’s better for the environment, that’s probably a good thing. Of course, push come to shove, in the interests of moving product, such a corporation is probably more interested in drawing your attention to the benefits of that product than to the drawbacks. It might even hype as an improvement a new product that (in the carbon calculus) is no kind of improvement at all.

While sponsoring the Next Generation Energy blog, Shell does not control the conversation there. Shell has no say over what the bloggers write there, nor over which bloggers the Seed editors invite to write there. Indeed, I’m planning to write a post or two there, and I make no bones about my view that Shell is probably as evil a corporation as it thinks it can get away with being (from the point of view of the law and the minimal level of consumer good will they need to keep moving their product).

This doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t be suspicious of this sponsorship deal. Even if one is not being overtly censored or instructed as to what to write, the potential for subconscious bias — to avoid biting the corporate hand that pays the bills — is always there. I’m hoping the bloggers at Next Generation Energy take extra pains to examine their own posts for creeping bias, and I urge readers and commenters to vocally call out any posts that you think may be pandering to Shell’s interests or participating in a “green-washing” of Shell’s corporate image.

I’m sure Shell has put up sponsorship money on the theory that supporting this sort of online discussion will be counted by readers as evidence of Shell’s corporate social responsibility. Blogospheric talk is a lot cheaper than real world action. But at least the money Shell is spending to support the Next Generation Energy blog is money they won’t be spending to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve.


  1. #1 Jim Thomerson
    July 11, 2008

    Here is a press release on how much energy can be reasonably expected from biofuels.

  2. #2 S. Rivlin
    July 12, 2008

    One needs only to watch the new wave of TV commercials by all the big oil companies to realize that Shell’s sponsorship of the New Generation Energy blog is mainly for PR purposes. These attempts are not different from the TV commercials put on by the tobacco industry about ways to quit smoking. Since the tobacco industry cannot be trusted to come up with an alternative to tobacco, I don’t believe that the oil industry is the one that will come up with an alternative to oil.

  3. #3 phisrow
    July 13, 2008

    Shell’s sponsorship fails to exactly give me the warm and fuzzies about them; but I’d rather see attempts being made in the open, rather than by lots of slimy astroturfing and general skullduggery(not that it’s an either/or, of course).

    Open marketing puffery is much, much less dangerous than the sneaky kind.

  4. #4 JSinger
    July 14, 2008

    There’s another trade-off worth mentioning…

    I suspect that PZ Myers has just solved that dilemma for you folks, as well as the prospect of future conflicts of interest with any sponsors besides Darwin fish manufacturers.

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