Side Lines Moonshine on Capitol Hill William Baldwin, 10.13.05
I was elated when those professors threw a hand grenade
into the gasohol business. To define this business more precisely, it consists
of using sophisticated distillation methods to extract money from taxpayers and
hand it to Archer Daniels Midland. David Pimentel of Cornell and Tad W. Patzek
of Berkeley reported, just in time for Congress to enshrine this atrocity in the
energy bill, that corn-based ethanol consumes more energy than it yields.
Too soon to rejoice. Now (on
p. 122) comes along Peter Huber, my favorite envirocolumnist, to say that
comparing energy inputs to energy outputs is an accounting error. One BTU is not
the same as another. It makes all the difference in the world where your energy
is and what chemical form it takes. So, it's okay to burn two units of natural
gas in Qatar to make one appear in Texas, or to put 5 BTUs of coal into a power
plant and have only 2 BTUs of electricity come out the other end. Quality
matters as much as quantity.
Now, the professors did a very careful analysis,
considering fossil fuels only and converting these into oil equivalents. And
they peeked in places that maybe the ADM lobbyists overlooked, such as the
energy used to manufacture farm machinery, or the energy burned up indirectly in
the form of farm labor. If the farmer heats his swimming pool with propane, you
are, arguably, consuming that propane when you buy a gasoline-ethanol blend. But
the profs, for simplicity, violated the Huberian accounting constraints. They
lumped assorted BTUs together.
How, then, to do energy accounting, if BTUs are not
interchangeable? Huber has an ingenious method, borrowed from Adam Smith: Follow
the money. If you make money converting one form of energy to another, then
convert, irrespective of BTU calculations. If you lose money, you are doing
something bad to the Earth's thermodynamics.
So, what are the economics of converting fertilizer and
tractor fuel into automobile fuel? Not good. The professors noted in their paper
that taxpayers were financing this conversion with $3 billion a year of ethanol
subsidies--this was before Congress mandated a doubling in the use of ethanol
for fuel--and are also suffering higher beef and milk prices as a side effect.
The three experts agree on something: Gasohol is a loser.