The Scientific Activist

I’ve been pretty open here about my support of Barack Obama’s bid for the presidency, but one issue I certainly disagree with him on is his support of corn ethanol subsidies. Unfortunately, it looks like that this is one issue he’s unlikely to improve on, as The New York Times reports today that ties to the corn ethanol industry permeate the highest levels of the Obama campaign:

Mr. Obama is running as a reformer who is seeking to reduce the influence of special interests. But like any other politician, he has powerful constituencies that help shape his views. And when it comes to domestic ethanol, almost all of which is made from corn, he also has advisers and prominent supporters with close ties to the industry at a time when energy policy is a point of sharp contrast between the parties and their presidential candidates.

Nowadays, when Mr. Obama travels in farm country, he is sometimes accompanied by his friend Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader from South Dakota. Mr. Daschle now serves on the boards of three ethanol companies and works at a Washington law firm where, according to his online job description, “he spends a substantial amount of time providing strategic and policy advice to clients in renewable energy.”

Mr. Obama’s lead advisor on energy and environmental issues, Jason Grumet, came to the campaign from the National Commission on Energy Policy, a bipartisan initiative associated with Mr. Daschle and Bob Dole, the Kansas Republican who is also a former Senate majority leader and a big ethanol backer who had close ties to the agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland.

The production of ethanol from corn is not an energy-efficient process, and it’s unlikely that using ethanol fuel produced from corn will result in significantly lower carbon dioxide emissions. On top of that, diverting resources into corn ethanol production drives up food prices and could very well exacerbate world hunger. Therefore, by subsidizing corn ethanol, the government is not only not directly addressing global warming (and instead diverting resources away from more viable solutions) but also contributing to a variety of emerging problems. The only people likely to benefit from such subsidies are large agricultural corporations.

This is one issue where McCain, against such subsidies, is in the right. However, considering that his solutions to the growing energy crisis include a gas tax holiday and ending the federal ban on offshore oil drilling (a reversal of a past position), it’s hard to make the case that he’s any stronger on energy or the environment… or on any other issue for that matter.

What all of this underscores is that Obama is not the perfect candidate, and we should be careful not to build him up too much in our own minds. This also emphasizes that even if you do support his bid for the presidency, there will be plenty of issues to push him on now and after he (hopefully) takes office. This is one that we should be particularly vocal about… although based on the source of his strong support for corn ethanol, it’s unlikely that his position here is going to shift.

Comments

  1. #1 Marc
    June 23, 2008

    Hopefully, after Obama gets into office, science will again be able to provide some guidance to a responsibly-crafted national energy policy.

    Corn is inefficient in terms of amount of ethanol/acre of farmland. If there is money to be spent, money should be spent on getting algae-based biofuels and the new gasoline-producing yeast, then pay the farmers to start producing these fuels.

    Clean coal costs about 30% of the energy that a coal-fired plant will produce, so this will be economical, and if the carbon dioxide fails to stay put, then it is just a waste.

    Money should be invested in getting PV technology up and running: power purchase agreements allow for placement of multitudes of PV systems, if they can be had on a residential basis.

    We have lost 8 years of time to respond to our growing climate situation (thanks, Bush!) and it appears that we are rapidly running out of time left– five years for the arctic ice to disappear completely?

    Below, I have included a list of carbon-conservation ideas that most people could do:

    1) For “A/C” in the summer, open the windows at night and close them during the day

    2) buy recycled products if you can find them- support recycling;

    3) buy local products & produce (http://www.localharvest.org)- if they are not transported, that saves gasoline and also supports the local producer. Also, for grass-fed, local meat (the way it is supposed to be done), try Eat Wild (http://www.eatwild.com/products/index.html);

    4) composting turns garbage into fertilizer and prevents formation of methane, which is 23 times worse than carbon dioxide in terms of climate effect;

    5) unplug all adapters and turn off anything that is on ‘Standby’- use powerstrips with a switch for multiple plugs, if needed;

    6) use a rake instead of a leaf blower: they are quieter and provide exercise too;

    7) use a clothesline (http://www.laundrylist.org) instead of the dryer- many benefits: cleaner clothes, clothes last longer, don’t get wrinkled, and each load saves 5 kWh off of your electric bill;

    8) replace incandescents with CFLs- saves on A/C costs in summer too;

    9) if your lawn is not too big, use a REEL lawnmower, which you push to cut the grass and requires no gasoline;

    10) if you have a wood burning stove, try biobricks (http://www.biopellet.net) – pellets for a wood burning stove- these burn more cleanly with less ash and are easy to start (available in New England and NY) ;

    11) try to use biodiesel (http://www.biodiesel.org/buyingbiodiesel/retailfuelingsites/) for your furnace/boiler/car;

    12) cook with pots covered– saving about 30% of energy needed;

    13) get a solar hot water heater (http://www.eere.energy.gov/consumer/your_home/water_heating/index.cfm/mytopic=12850)- fastest payback of all renewables;

    14) replace drafty windows, if you can. If you cannot, use plastic ($10) or close the curtains at night ($0) during the winter; and

    15) trade in the SUV for a car or even a hybrid vehicle, if you need a car- buy used to save money.

    Start out with something small and try bigger items as you feel more and more comfortable with these changes.

    There are many possibilities, and they may seem overwhelming. Some ideas are more effective than others: #1 will work if your house is shaded…. but it depends on what you are willing to do. Start with the smaller items, and as you see how it works for you, move to larger items. My family has done all of it (#3 is happening now, and the veggies are much fresher, #11 will happen when I can find some in my area. In doing all of these things, our electric bill is only 200-400 kWh/month, and our carbon footprint is less than half of the average American’s use. We saved about $2000 on our heating bill last winter, using the Biobricks.

  2. #2 GBitker
    June 23, 2008

    While I certainly agree with the political content of your message, neither candidate is a true environmentalist, although they like to give lip service to this issue.
    Why do you feel the need to bash the corn ethanol industry? Has it hurt you? Taken food off your table? The ethanol industry has not taken food out of peoples mouths.
    True, it is not the most efficient process, what do you have to suggest that is better than pumping fossil fuels from the ground? at least ethanol is renewable. Family farms benefit from this just as much as corporate farms, as this has increased the previously dismal price of corn. What about Biodiesel? It’s causing soybeans to be used for fuel. Is that just as bad?
    Solutions not bashing!

  3. #3 bwv
    June 23, 2008

    Yes, we all know that pure science is more compelling to politicians than moneyied lobbyists. Obama has proven he is no better or worse than any other politician in this regard.

    If you think 1) will work you don’t live in TX. If you all will live without heat next winter, I will give up AC.

    Fortunately we are not dependent on government to develop clean solutions – the private market is working just fine (over $150B of investments in 2007). Government is more conflicted than private business because the process is so susceptible to being hijacked by special interests (case in point – ethanol). If a business backs a bad solution it goes bankrupt, if government backs a bad solution, it creates an interest group who makes sure the subsidies keep coming.

  4. #4 becca
    June 23, 2008

    I’ve heard some very negative things surrounding the corn-EtOH gasoline. Although it’s something I used to support, I no longer do. I suspect that Obama has likely heard many of the same arguments in favor of EtOH gasoline that I have- it’s been pushed a lot in Illinois.
    Most of the small scale farmers I have met are in favor of EtOH gasoline subsidies. I’m not sure such subsidies will actually benefit those farmers (as opposed to just “large argricultural corporations”), but those folks sure think those subsidies are a good idea. As a small scale farmer, making a profit one year in seven is doing pretty well. It’s really hard to tell those people we don’t want to subsidize corn.

    I also understand the way corn-as-fuel could contribute to world hunger, and that worries me. But, at the same time, isn’t it possible that adding high fructose corn syrup to everything will decrease if corn prices go up? The malnutrition of excess in this country would be well served by less corn in our diets.
    On the other hand- I could easily see that not working the way I envision. Many farmers in Illinois that used to grow corn now grow soybeans- if we persuade them to go back to corn, and soybean prices go up as a result, I’m not sure that would do good things for our diets either… these are very complicated issues. So, I actually (mostly) agree with your position, but I’m not sure it’s really as simple as you make it seem.

  5. #5 Brian
    June 23, 2008

    Ooooh… Subsidies – that’s a problem for me in many more ways than just the corn/ethanol axis. To further comment on what becca said, one of the major reasons that processed foods are so cheap and thus make up such a large part of lower-income Americans’ diets is the agricultural subsidies of the last 50 years. Primarily wheat, corn, and soybeans. These subsidized foods are very cheap and lend themselves to being processed into these high-calorie foods. So Twinkies are thus cheaper than produce, even though a Twinkie is a lot more complex and should logically be more expensive. And agricultural subsidies ruin third-world countries’ agricultural economies.

    The ethanol angle on corn is just the latest way of keeping the dinosaur of smaller farms alive. In a first-world country today, there is no way that small or family farms can be competitive. Because agricultural products are fungible and liquid, meaning that these smaller farmers are not just competing in the American economy, but the global economy.

  6. #6 Marc
    June 23, 2008

    GBitker- no bashing… not all of my suggestions can be used by everyone. And, being someone who just discovered MTBE in my well water, I can appreciate ethanol’s characteristics! However, the use of corn or soybeans for creating ethanol is simply an inefficient use of land: about 400-600 gallons/acre/year (http://www.evworld.com/syndicated/evworld_article_1107.cfm). Biodiesel can be obtained in quantities of 15,000 (Vertigro?)- >100,000 (Valcent?) gallons/acre/year (http://www.energyandcapital.com/articles/biofuel-algae-biodiesel/395 http://www.biodieselnow.com/forums/p/5026/35271.aspx).
    We will need to ditch gasoline for biodiesel or hydrogen.

    A source for Hydrogen via solar, thermal cracking of water or methane is being developed by SHEC-Labs, in Saskatchewan, Canada (http://www.shec-labs.com). This looks quite promising for hydrogen production.

  7. #7 Paul Murray
    June 23, 2008

    The only solution to the oil crisis is to get accustomed to using less of the stuff. That means a makeover of the way we live – particularly this business of living in the suburbs (or exurbs) and commuting to work. In 50 years time, no-one but the very rich will live that way. By what route we get from here to there (as we inevitably will) is the business of governance.

  8. #8 bwv
    June 24, 2008

    “The only solution to the oil crisis is to get accustomed to using less of the stuff. That means a makeover of the way we live”

    Yes, the abstinence-only approach

  9. #9 bigTom
    June 24, 2008

    A good and well nuanced article. I do disagree about the only beneficiaries being large agribusiness. Clearly the whole farm economy has benefitted from higher corn prices. Whereas beef producers, who use corn based feedstock, have been hurt. For the most part, the winners and losers from the ethanol policy are well separated geographically. But clearly the whole corn-belt economy is enjoying high crop prices, which translate into higher land prices etc.

    Thermodynamically ethanol is a poor way to use biomass. Using biomass as fuel for combined heat and power, and/or as a feedstock for methane production makes a lot more sense. But, we have a conjunction of interests seeking to promote the idea that business as usual will be sustainable, and farm interests promoting ethanol for their own narrow interests.

    Hopefully, Obama seems much more susceptible to reasoned argument than most candidates. At least I would expect the merits/demerits of an issue to get a decent hearing within his administration. That doesn’t mean that a good technical case will always overcome political expediency. Obama will likely be careful to choose which battles are worth fighting.

  10. #10 Vladimir
    June 24, 2008

    just a joke.

    4 big problem of our time:
    1) terrorist threat from middle east
    2.a) over population in Asia, Africa, South America
    2.b) big population -> big CO2 emission
    3) human made global warming
    4) many nuclear bomb near to end of life cycle

    We can use bombs to depopulate big areas. And solve all problems at once.
    No bombs, no overpopulation, no CO2 emmiters, no terrorists, and nuclear winter make climate cooler.

  11. #11 decrepitoldfool
    June 24, 2008

    GBitker, corn ethanol is not an alternative to pumping fossil fuels out of the ground because the total energy balance is at best break-even. So it doesn’t save any oil and it most certainly does take food of the tables of some people by driving up food prices. And what is “bashing”, anyway? The recognition of real problems?

    You asked for solutions: Marc posted several (not all will work in every area, of course). And new technologies will help but there’s a lead time. We better get aggressive on global warming; we’re years behind the curve already.

  12. #12 yogi-one
    June 25, 2008

    Wow, Vladimir, you are a genius!!

    Just goes to prove that there is NO problem American bombs can’t solve!

    That’ll make me sleep easier tonight!

  13. #13 lylebot
    June 25, 2008

    “Hopefully it will be different when he takes office.” Don’t get your hopes up. It won’t be any different. If anything it will be worse, because when he’s in office hundreds of Democratic representatives and senators from all over the country will be relying on him to support them. A political career will always require playing politics, no matter how high you get.

  14. #14 Joseph Brenner
    July 1, 2008

    “Most energy experts say that increased production of the infamous biofuel would cause food prices to skyrocket while doing little or nothing to reduce carbon emissions.”

    Wake up, guys! This is already happening because of the three-fold increase in gasoline prices, through the BUSHWAH REGIME.

  15. #15 Prof.Hans-Jürgen Franke & Prof. Pengcheng Fu
    September 26, 2008

    ETHANOL-PRODUCTION WITH BLUE-GREEN-ALGAE
    A SOLUTION AFTER PEAK-OIL AND OIL-CRASH

    University of Hawai’i Professor Pengchen “Patrick” Fu developed an innovative technology, to produce high amounts of ethanol with modified cyanobacterias, as a new feedstock for ethanol, without entering in conflict with the food and feed-production .

    Fu has developed strains of cyanobacteria — one of the components of pond scum — that feed on atmospheric carbon dioxide, and produce ethanol as a waste product.

    He has done it both in his laboratory under fluorescent light and with sunlight on the roof of his building. Sunlight works better, he said.

    It has a lot of appeal and potential. Turning waste into something useful is a good thing. And the blue-green-algae needs only sun and wast- recycled from the sugar-cane-industry, to grow and to produce directly more and more ethanol. With this solution, the sugarcane-based ethanol-industry in Brazil and other tropical regions will get a second way, to produce more biocombustible for the worldmarket.

    The technique may need adjusting to increase how much ethanol it yields, but it may be a new technology-challenge in the near future.

    The process was patented by Fu and UH in January, but there’s still plenty of work to do to bring it to a commercial level. The team of Fu foundet just the start-up LA WAHIE BIOTECH INC. with headquarter in Hawaii and branch-office in Brazil.

    PLAN FOR AN EXPERIMENTAL ETHANOL PLANT

    Fu figures his team is two to three years from being able to build a full-scale
    ethanol plant, and they are looking for investors or industry-partners (jointventure).

    He is fine-tuning his research to find different strains of blue-green algae that will produce even more ethanol, and that are more tolerant of high levels of ethanol. The system permits, to “harvest” continuously ethanol – using a membrane-system- and to pump than the blue-green-algae-solution in the Photo-Bio-Reactor again.

    Fu started out in chemical engineering, and then began the study of biology. He has studied in China, Australia, Japan and the United States, and came to UH in 2002 after a stint as scientist for a private company in California.

    He is working also with NASA on the potential of cyanobacteria in future lunar and Mars colonization, and is also proceeding to take his ethanol technology into the marketplace. A business plan using his system, under the name La Wahie Biotech, won third place — and a $5,000 award — in the Business Plan Competition at UH’s Shidler College of Business.
    Daniel Dean and Donavan Kealoha, both UH law and business students, are Fu’s partners. So they are in the process of turning the business plan into an operating business.

    The production of ethanol for fuel is one of the nation’s and the world’s major initiatives, partly because its production takes as much carbon out of the atmosphere as it dumps into the atmosphere. That’s different from fossil fuels such as oil and coal, which take stored carbon out of the ground and release it into the atmosphere, for a net increase in greenhouse gas.
    Most current and planned ethanol production methods depend on farming, and in the case of corn and sugar, take food crops and divert them into energy.

    Fu said crop-based ethanol production is slow and resource-costly. He decided to work with cyanobacteria, some of which convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into their own food and release oxygen as a waste product.

    Other scientists also are researching using cyanobacteria to make ethanol, using different strains, but Fu’s technique is unique, he said. He inserted genetic material into one type of freshwater cyanobacterium, causing it to produce ethanol as its waste product. It works, and is an amazingly efficient system.

    The technology is fairly simple. It involves a photobioreactor, which is a
    fancy term for a clear glass or plastic container full of something alive, in which light promotes a biological reaction. Carbon dioxide gas is bubbled through the green mixture of water and cyanobacteria. The liquid is then passed through a specialized membrane that removes the
    ethanol, allowing the water, nutrients and cyanobacteria to return to the
    photobioreactor.

    Solar energy drives the conversion of the carbon dioxide into ethanol. The partner of Prof. Fu in Brazil in the branch-office of La Wahie Biotech Inc. in Aracaju – Prof. Hans-Jürgen Franke – is developing a low-cost photo-bio-reactor-system. Prof. Franke want´s soon creat a pilot-project with Prof. Fu in Brazil.

    The benefit over other techniques of producing ethanol is that this is simple and quick—taking days rather than the months required to grow crops that can be converted to ethanol.

    La Wahie Biotech Inc. believes it can be done for significantly less than the cost of gasoline and also less than the cost of ethanol produced through conventional methods.

    Also, this system is not a net producer of carbon dioxide: Carbon dioxide released into the environment when ethanol is burned has been withdrawn from the environment during ethanol production. To get the carbon dioxide it needs, the system could even pull the gas out of the emissions of power plants or other carbon dioxide producers. That would prevent carbon dioxide release into the atmosphere, where it has been implicated as a
    major cause of global warming.
    Honolulo – Hawaii/USA and Aracaju – Sergipe/Brasil – 15/09/2008

    Prof. Pengcheng Fu – E-Mail: pengchen2008@gmail.com
    Prof. Hans-Jürgen Franke – E-Mail: lawahiebiotech.brasil@gmail.com

    Tel.: 00-55-79-3243-2209

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