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NPR: Lop-sided and Outdated. Where’s Big Oil?

December 22, 2010


As NPR is still reeling from the November congressional and public outcry to bar local public radio stations from using taxpayer dollars to purchase NPR programing as a result of perceived bias in "reporting", it is very surprising that NPR would then turn around and run a lop-sided and at times miserably outdated series on ethanol as produced by Harvest Public Media. After listening and reading the past two days' "reports", a number of items need to be addressed.  Such as: American ethanol is the only alternative to imported oil. America should invest in wind power, solar power, and other alternative energy sources. But they can't fuel almost all cars and trucks.  Every 100 million gallons of US ethanol eliminates 3.5 million barrels of crude oil imports. This year, ethanol production is likely to approach 13 billion gallons. This will reduce the demand for imported oil by about 455 million barrels. That's about as much oil as we import from Venezuela every year. Where in this series is the comparison to Big Oil?  You can't talk, weigh, or dismiss an alternative without talking about the problem it is trying to solve.  So where, perhaps in the final piece, will we hear NPR discuss the billions in subsidies and tax breaks that go to Big Oil conglomerates and dangerous dictators in oil rich countries? Ethanol offers lots more energy than it takes to produce. In fact, an analysis released by the US Department of Agriculture in June 2010 concluded that one unit of fossil energy used in the corn ethanol production process results in 2.3 units of energy in the form of ethanol. Instead of using 2010 numbers, NPR chooses to quote David Pimentel, a Cornell University entomology professor, whose first study on the topic came out 30 years ago.  Pimentel say his findings haven't changed, but according to NPR itself, "Pimentel uses what many researchers believe are outdated or worst-case scenarios for growing corn and producing ethanol." A good example of Pimentel's time lag is his statement "We are importing oil to produce this ethanol."  That's simply false.  Ethanol production requires very little petroleum and most of the fossil energy used is natural gas, a domestic resource.  According to the University of California at Berkeley (not exactly a hotbed of ethanol support), the production of 19 units of ethanol energy takes just one unit of petroleum energy. So what exactly was NPR's purpose in using dusty old stats that they then dismiss in the same breath? Back on the unmentioned elephant-in-the-room topic of oil, NPR should have noted that producing gasoline takes much more petroleum than producing ethanol.  Researchers at the Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory found that it takes 1.23 units of fossil energy to produce one unit of energy in the form of gasoline. In other words, it's gasoline—not ethanol—that has the negative energy balance. Ethanol has little impact, if any, on consumer food prices. As a study in 2008 by the US Departments of Energy and Agriculture concluded: "...current biofuels-related feedstock demand plays only a small role in global food supply and pricing."  Just a few mere months ago, the World Bank found "...the effect of biofuels on food prices has not been as large as originally thought ..." That's why, while the US is producing record amounts of ethanol, food inflation is at its lowest level in 18 years. This would have been a good place to mention the December 2007 Tufts University study that explains that meat prices are tied to production decisions by livestock producers 18 – 24 months ago and "While family farmers' net incomes stagnated or declined, even with subsidies included, industrial livestock operations were treated to a bonanza of low-priced feed."  Tufts notes, "livestock giants, not farmers, have been among the main beneficiaries of U.S. farm policies since 1996."  Again, NPR, please lift the veil on the whole story, anything shy of the whole story is an editorial and should be disclosed as such. Ethanol creates jobs and opportunity especially in economically challenged areas like rural America.  This is a good one.  Ethanol supports, either directly or indirectly, 400,000 jobs across the economy and across America.  NPR chooses to quote David Swenson of Iowa State University AND notes that he does not count ethanol jobs related to corn farming and ag input production.  First of all, why wouldn't you count all jobs related to an industry, directly or indirectly?  Someone has to grow the corn, produce the fertilizer that is applied to the corn, transport the corn, transport the ethanol, blend the ethanol with gasoline, and sell the ethanol-blended gasoline.  Second, even if you strictly isolated jobs directly related to ethanol production, the result would be approximately 60,000 jobs, not the 30,000-35,000 number given by Swenson. Clean-burning American ethanol is good for the environment. In fact, a recent study published in Yale University's Journal of Industrial Ecology found that greenhouse gas emissions from ethanol are "...equivalent to a 48% to 59% reduction compared to gasoline, a twofold to threefold greater reduction than reported in previous studies." I could go on...and on...but I think my point has been made.  I look forward to NPR running a series on the price in human lives and taxpayer dollars on the petroleum industry. Or perhaps a three-part series on the politics and economics of the livestock industry and grocery manufacturing sector is also in order.