The underlying objection

Is there something deeper going on in all this anti-ethanol rhetoric? Is there some sort of philosophical underlying problem?
By Susanne Retka Schill | October 29, 2012

Corresponding with Bruce Dale a couple of weeks ago, I posed a question to him that I’ve been pondering for a while: is there something deeper going on in all this anti-ethanol rhetoric? Is there some sort of philosophical underlying problem? Dale is a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science  at Michigan State University who, in addition to his research on cellulosic pretreatments, has tackled some of the big-picture issues facing biofuels such as indirect land use.

At one time, ethanol was the darling of environmentalism for its role in cleaning up air pollution. Oxygenates are added to gasoline to help it burn more cleanly and ethanol is now the oxygenate of choice, replacing the highly toxic and now-banned MTBE. A common objection is the oft-repeated “fact” that it takes more fossil fuel to produce ethanol than you get out of it. That hasn’t been the case for decades, and was really only true for some of the very first fuel ethanol systems. The engineers quickly started working on making the process more efficient, which they are still working on today. There’s an ongoing discussion about how ethanol has fewer Btu than gasoline, which is true. But one commentator to the website noted that Btu is a measure of heat that is irrelevant in an internal combustion. I recall not long ago learning that when engines are optimized for ethanol’s properties, you can get more torque out of ethanol. But the engine arguments are beyond me. All I know is that if we want to keep urban smog in check, ethanol will be in our fuel as an oxygenate.

So, is it anti-corn? Is it anti-industrial agriculture? I can understand people being concerned about the success of ethanol paving the way for even more fields of corn. And it has in the short term. But one way to reintroduce of diversity in our agricultural landscape is to promote profitable alternatives. Planting perennial grasses in sensitive areas could go a long way in mitigating many of the concerns from row crops. The only way that will become a viable cropping strategy is if there is a use for the grass that can compete with corn, which could come from those ethanol plants located just a short drive away from nearly every corn field in America.

There’s a lot of interest in adding cellulosic ethanol capacity to first generation plants. Abundant corn stover is the obvious first-choice for feedstock, but energy grasses would be potential feedstocks. That isn’t going to happen if ethanol critics get their way and quash the industry. The development of second generation of biofuels using agricultural and municipal wastes and energy crops will be hindered greatly if the rug gets pulled out from under first-generation biofuels.    

Dale didn’t go in the arguments that he uses with critics of ethanol. Over time, as he’s talked to critics (and I would guess that in academia the debates can be lively, and well-informed,) he says it boils down to an unspoken moral issue.  “I think the fundamental, ‘gut’ opposition to biofuels, corn ethanol as the most prominent example, is that many people believe down deep that we cannot have both food and fuel,” Dale said. “It is a moral issue, but not very often voiced that way.  I don’t think it is particularly anti-corn or anti-ethanol, although corn and ethanol opponents use it as a convenient stick to beat us with. Western society has been taught for so long that the world is short of food that it is just part of the collective psyche. When I talk to people who object to biofuels, after I overcome their other objections, that is the final, bedrock issue/concern/objection for them.”

In an age of spin, where partial truths simplify and mask complex realities, the average citizen operates on fragments of knowledge that are seldom examined. Overcoming misinformation is one thing. Overcoming moral objections will be bigger challenge.