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Hypocrisy in the Name of the Planet

October 27, 2010


The growth in domestic ethanol production has been fueled in part by so-called environmentalists and others who were concerned about the damage being done to the planet by American dependence on oil.  On multiple occasions in the not too distant past, the RFA worked with environmentalists to pass important policies that fostered the growth of existing ethanol production and research and development of new ethanol technologies. But, you wouldn't know that the environmental community ever supported ethanol by reading news clips today.  If you are new to the debate, you would be led to believe environmentalists have long opposed ethanol and starch-based ethanol in particular.  A review of history would show you to be wrong. One of the most ardent, vocal, and inflammatory critics of ethanol today is the Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC.  By reading their public statements of late, you would think their team of lobbyists has been opposing ethanol since they were in the womb. Interestingly, the NRDC was a chief proponent of ethanol and biofuels in the Congressional debates that led to the passage of first Renewable Fuels Standard in the 2005 energy bill.  In a June 9, 2005 press release on the energy bill moving through Congress, NRDC outlined some of things they would like to see included.  Here is one: 1.       Requires oil savings of 2.5 million barrels of oil per day by 2015 The most important actions Congress can take to reduce our oil dependence are to adopt an enforceable oil savings plan for cars and light trucks, helping automakers retool factories to build hybrids and other fuel-efficient technologies and using fuels made from crops grown by American farmers.  (NRDC press release, June 9, 2005) Thanks to policies environmentalists have helped to establish, domestic ethanol is already reducing oil imports by 1 million barrels today, nearly halfway to the NRDC stated goal.  And more oil savings are on the way as the industry continues to grow and evolve. Chief NRDC ethanol critic, Nathanael Greene, wrote in a paper in July 2005 that "Existing biofuel technologies save oil, reduce greenhouse gases, build infrastructure, and develop markets.  These technologies are the foundation from which our transition away from petroleum will be launched." That constructive tone is quite different from the inflammatory language used by Mr. Greene and his colleagues today.   But wait, there is more. NRDC has even come to the defense of ethanol, shooting down the oft-refuted idea that ethanol takes more energy to produce than it provides.  Here is a snippet from a February 2006 NRDC report entitled "Ethanol:  Energy Well Spent": "...the corn ethanol industry is the foundation from which a much larger biofuels economy will grow. As the energy return on investment shows, corn ethanol is providing important fossil fuel savings and greenhouse gas emissions reductions today, and it is providing an even bigger oil savings." But the support from environmentalists for ethanol did not end with the 2005 energy bill.  The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 expanded upon the 2005 energy bill, most notably expanding the Renewable Fuels Standard by 500%. Yet, there's still more.  A 2006 research paper from none other than the University of California at Berkeley expound upon the benefits of ethanol compared to petroleum.  The paper, entitled "Ethanol Can Contribute to Energy and Environmental Goals" and published in the journal Science, found: "Our best point estimate for average performance today is that corn ethanol reduces petroleum use by about 95% on an energetic basis and reduces GHG emissions only moderately, by about 13%." (One person's moderate is another's good start.) Let's be clear, most environmentalists have long sought a transition to cellulosic and other advanced biofuel technologies.  America's ethanol industry is eager to see those technologies commercialized as well.  But as NRDC and others point out, it takes the foundation currently being built by starch-based ethanol producers to provide the market stability needed for commercial cellulosic ethanol and advanced biofuel  production. Given previous support for ethanol and the recognition that it takes a successful and robust starch-based industry to bring next generation technologies, it is puzzling why NRDC and others in the environmental community seek to hamstring current industry efforts.  This includes proper and scientifically-based implementation of the RFS, a continuation of tax policies that encourage ethanol use, investments in infrastructure to expand ethanol's place in the market, and a need to reform loan guarantee programs so that next generation technologies can be built. One wonders how fickle environmental support will be for advanced biofuels once they begin production en masse and are a significant share of the U.S. fuel market.  Will they continue to support these fuels?  Or like existing biofuel technologies, will they abandon their support for the newest, shiniest potential fuel on the horizon? Sadly, the answer is abandonment.  Environmental groups like NRDC must exist in a constant state of conflict to justify asking for donations from Americans, many of whom likely won't benefit from the current environmental agenda. One of the leading organs for the discontent of those who would have the world survive solely by hunting and gathering (but only on existing acres as we don't want to induce any land change through excessive gathering) is Grist.  On this blog, Tom Philpott, himself an avid ethanol hater, attacks the notion of cellulosic ethanol stating, "Asking our soil to supply not only our food but the ravenous demands of our 200 million-plus fleet of cars was always an insane idea. Cellulosic ethanol, if it ever takes off, will only make the madness worse." Perhaps environmentalists are correct.  We should wait for unicorn tears, pixie dust, and other fictional fuels to be discovered and just let petroleum serve our needs until then.  There is plenty of that, right?