POSTED: 14 October 2006 - 9:45am HST

Enough Water for Ethanol in Hawaii?

reviving an old waterway formerly used to irrigate sugar cane fields near Waialua poses challenges

by Sean Hao on 8 October 2006 in the Honolulu Advertiser

Ethanol may not be the energy panacea many in Hawai'i had hoped for. Producing the biofuel from sugar cane would help move Hawai'i away from dependence on imported oil while invigorating the farm industry.

Sounds great, but making it happen is far from simple. The barriers to producing ethanol locally include:

• Building production plants
• Getting water rights switched back to sugar cane land
• Repairing irrigation systems
• Finding farm workers

Among these issues, getting water rights may prove to be the stickiest.

Sugar cane is ideal for making ethanol and has a long history in Hawai'i, but it is an especially thirsty plant. It takes as much water to grow 10,000 acres of sugar cane as it does to keep 67 golf courses green. And experts estimate Hawai'i will need to increase sugar cane acreage by more than 80,000 acres by 2020 to meet local demands for ethanol.

Hawai'i's large landowners abandoned sugar cane in the past two decades. As they exited the business, the water previously used to irrigate their fields was diverted to other purposes.

Returning that water to the fields will likely draw opposition.

"This is a huge issue that has barely touched the surface of public opinion," said Henry Curtis, executive director of the environmental group Life of the Land. "I think it's going to explode, if the sugar industry decides to tap into irrigation water."

On O'ahu, Windward activists and farmers successfully fought to get water previously diverted to Leeward cane fields sent back to their side of the island. They argued the water was needed to feed streams that create estuaries for marine life, support streamside agriculture like taro, and for scenic and other values.

"There is water. The question is: What do we decide to do with it?" said Stephanie Whalen, president of the Hawaii Agricultural Research Center and member of the state Commission on Water Resource Management. "If we wanted to be more self-sufficient in biofuels, could we then make different policy decisions?"

To quench Hawai'i's thirst for ethanol, the state's sugar cane industry would need to at least triple in size by reclaiming fallow plantation land, according to state and private estimates. Under state law that took effect in April, most gasoline is required to contain 10 percent ethanol.

But property owners aren't likely to move forward on growing sugar cane until they can be assured they can get the needed water.

"If you can't get water to the crops, you're dead in the water," said Kamehameha Schools chief executive Dee Jay Mailer during a recent public discussion on the issue. "These crops need water."

Kamehameha Schools, which owns 8,700 acres of former sugar land on O'ahu's North Shore, wants the state to take the lead in addressing issues such as water access and irrigation system repairs.

Kamehameha Schools along with two other major landowners, Grove Farm Co. and Maui Land & Pineapple Co., have formed Hawai'i BioEnergy, which is researching the feasibility of growing sugar cane to produce ethanol.
Kamehameha Schools said preliminary research is promising, even though a comprehensive market study won't be completed for six months.

The state court and public policy decisions after plantation closures have made it difficult to secure water for agriculture without considerable time and effort, according to Lena Hansen, a project manager for the Rocky Mountain Institute, an energy consultant based in Snowmass, Colo., hired by the state to study some of the issues surrounding ethanol.

Part of the issue stems from state requirements that Hawai'i streams be restored to levels needed to support native life.

So-called in-stream flow standards have yet to be set for most streams, and setting such levels will likely be a divisive and hotly debated process. Until that occurs, landowners and potential investors may hold off on making major commitments to grow biofuel crops such as sugar cane.

"It makes them nervous if they don't have a long-term contract on water," Hansen said. "If you don't know what that (in-stream flow standard) number is, you don't know how much water you can take from that for agriculture purposes."
The state can't promise land-owners access to more water.

Peter Young, director of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, said the state needs to balance the needs of future biofuel crops against other obligations, including protecting streams.

"It's kind of difficult to answer if there's enough water or not" to irrigate significantly more sugar cane crops, Young said. "We need to have a better understanding first. We need to know what area, what are the water demands of that area, the crop and the water needs of the crop."

Water access will likely be a big issue not just on O'ahu but also on Maui.
O'ahu has 38,500 acres of idle, prime agricultural land, according to the Department of Agriculture. Maui has 23,000 idle acres.

Like O'ahu, any attempt to significantly boost water availability for agriculture on Maui could create controversy.

Facing restrictions on use of the 'Iao aquifer and a rising demand for water, Maui County is looking to take control of surface water from the four major streams that are managed by Wailuku Water Co. The company, formerly called Wailuku Agribusiness, has phased out its farming activities and continues to divert water from the streams to sell to other agricultural interests, including Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. and Maui Land & Pineapple.

However, those surface water streams feed Maui's aquifer and also could more than double the amount of drinking water now available to residents, according to Maui County Mayor Alan Arakawa. He has said he hopes Maui County's actions would inspire other government entities statewide to take steps to preserve ground water and surface water.

"With the state moving away from an agricultural base, I think it is a good time in history to start looking at where the priorities should be for these water systems," he told The Advertiser in June.

On the Big Island, which has 108,800 acres of idle agricultural land, and Kaua'i, which has 45,400 acres of fallow farm land, water availability could be less of an issue. That's because much of those lands could rely on direct rainfall, rather than water from irrigation systems.

The Big Island and Kaua'i could provide sugar cane to produce ethanol for use on other islands, but it would be more efficient to produce it on the island where it is used. O'ahu generates 80 percent of the demand for ethanol.

Also, rain-fed sugar plantations on the Big Island and Kaua'i historically have had relatively low yields, so growing sugar cane on those islands might require more than the estimated 80,000 acres needed to meet the state's demand for ethanol by 2020.

The push for making ethanol from sugar cane comes from the advantages sugar cane holds. Not only does Hawai'i have existing sugar cane industry knowledge and infrastructure, but the crop has a high energy content. One ton of raw sugar produces 135 gallons of ethanol compared with 98 gallons of ethanol created from one ton of corn, according to a July U.S. Department of Agriculture report.
However, it's still unclear whether Hawai'i's major land owners will sell their sugar cane for ethanol production.

There are 40,000 acres of sugar cane currently growing in the state. If Hawai'i is going to be growing all of its own ethanol crops by 2020, that 40,000 acres (plus another 80,000 to 85,000 acres) will have to be used for ethanol.

However, landowners don't have to sell their cane or other byproducts for ethanol production. Heavy demand for ethanol may drive up sugar prices. If that happens, it may be more profitable for local landowners to sell their cane for sugar, rather than ethanol, said Steve Holaday, plant manager for Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. on Maui — one of only two sugar companies still operating in Hawai'i. That would mean even more acres would need to be planted to fuel state ethanol demands.


One hope for Hawai'i's ethanol proponents is that new technologies could cut the need for a large increase in sugar cane acreage.

Maurice Kaya, chief technology officer for the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, said new, more efficient cellulosic ethanol production technologies and sugar cane growing methods may mean Hawai'i's future ethanol demands can be met with its existing 40,000-acre crop.

Ethanol typically is made from sugars and starches. However, cellulosic ethanol is produced from cellulose, or a plant's fibrous material. Cellulosic ethanol techniques are in limited use, but promise to be more efficient than traditional production methods.

"The assumption that you need massive amounts of water is if you plan to expand" sugar plantations, Kaya said. "There's no question that sugar cane demands a lot of water. The first question is whether it even makes sense" to plant new sugar cane crops, Kaya added.

If new sugar cane acreage is needed and the state agrees to sign over water rights for that purpose, the issue remains of how the water will get to the fields. Irrigation systems have deteriorated in the wake of sugar cane plantation closures in the 1980s and 1990s.

The cost of rehabilitating 10 state-owned irrigation systems for sugar-based ethanol production would be more than $100 million, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute. Repairs to privately owned irrigation systems are likely to costs millions more.

Who will pay for upgrades and where the money will come from remains to be resolved.

Solving the water issue is key to producing ethanol locally and moving Hawai'i away from its dependence on imported fuel.

How long it could take to decide the issue of water availability is unclear.
The state hosted a biofuels summit Aug. 22 at the Hawai'i Convention Center to coordinate efforts. Entry was by invitation only and environmental groups, such as Life of the Land, were not invited.

Environmental activists ultimately could affect the debate over diverting more water to agriculture.

"If we're not at the table, it could drag out for years," said Life of the Land's Curtis. "If everybody sits down at the table and starts talking, it could happen in maybe five years."

see also:
Island Breath: GM Madness

Island Breath: Bio-Fuels



Food & Gas use now competing for grain

21 July 2006 3:00am HST

Supermarkets & Service Stations Competing for grain
by Lester R. Brown on 13 July 2006 in Eco-Economy Update

Cars, not people, will claim most of the increase in world grain consumption this year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that world grain use will grow by 20 million tons in 2006. Of this, 14 million tons will be used to produce fuel for cars in the United States, leaving only 6 million tons to satisfy the world's growing
food needs.

In agricultural terms, the world appetite for automotive fuel is insatiable. The grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV gas tank with ethanol will feed one person for a year. The grain to fill the tank every two weeks over a year will feed 26 people.
Investors are jumping on the highly profitable biofuel-bandwagon so fast that hardly a day goes by without another ethanol distillery or biodiesel refinery being announced somewhere in the world. The amount of corn used in U.S. ethanol distilleries has tripled in five years, jumping from 18 million tons in 2001 to an estimated 55 million tons from the 2006 crop.

In some U.S. Corn Belt states, ethanol distilleries are taking over the corn supply. In Iowa, a staggering 55 ethanol plants are operating or have been proposed. Iowa State University economist Bob Wisner observes that if all these plants are built, they would use virtually all the corn grown in Iowa. In South Dakota, a top-ten corn-growing state, ethanol distilleries are already claiming over half of the corn

With so many distilleries being built, livestock and poultry producers fear there may not be enough corn to produce meat, milk, and eggs. And since the United States supplies 70 percent of world corn exports, corn-importing countries are worried about their supply.

Since almost everything we eat can be converted into fuel for automobiles, including wheat, corn, rice, soybeans, and sugarcane, the line between the food and energy economies is disappearing.

Historically, food processors and livestock producers that converted these farm commodities into products for supermarket shelves were the only buyers. Now there is another group, those buying for the ethanol distilleries and biodiesel refineries that supply service stations.|

As the price of oil climbs, it becomes increasingly profitable to convert farm commodities into automotive fuel, either ethanol or biodiesel. In effect, the price of oil becomes the support price for food commodities. Whenever the food value of a commodity drops below its fuel value, the market will convert it into fuel.

Crop-based fuel production is now concentrated in Brazil, the United States, and Western Europe. The United States and Brazil each produced over 4 billion gallons (16 billion liters) of ethanol in 2005. While Brazil uses sugarcane as the feedstock, U.S. distillers use grain—mostly corn. The 55 million tons of U.S. corn going into ethanol this year represent nearly one sixth of the country's grain harvest but will supply only 3 percent of its automotive fuel. (For additional data, see

Brazil, the world's largest sugar producer and exporter, is now converting half of its sugar harvest into fuel ethanol. With just 10 percent of the world's sugar harvest going into ethanol, the price of sugar has doubled. Cheap sugar may now be history.

In Europe the emphasis is on producing biodiesel. Last year the European Union (EU) produced 1.6 billion gallons of biofuels. Of this, 858 million gallons were biodiesel, produced from vegetable oil, mostly in Germany and France, and 718 million gallons were ethanol, most of it distilled from grain in France, Spain, and Germany.

Margarine manufacturers, struggling to compete with subsidized biodiesel refineries, have asked the European Parliament for help.

In Asia, China and India are both building ethanol distilleries. In 2005, China converted some 2 million tons of grain—mostly corn, but also some wheat and rice—into ethanol. In India ethanol is produced largely from sugarcane. Thailand is concentrating on ethanol from cassava, while Malaysia and Indonesia are investing heavily in additional palm oil plantations and in new biodiesel refineries.

Within the last year or so, Malaysia has approved 32 biodiesel refineries, but recently has suspended further licensing while it assesses the adequacy of palm oil supplies.

The profitability of crop-based fuel production has created an investment juggernaut. With a U.S. ethanol subsidy of 51¢ per gallon in effect until 2010, and with oil priced at $70 per barrel, distilling fuel alcohol from corn promises huge profits for years to come.

In May 2005, the 100th U.S. ethanol distillery came on line. Seven of these distilleries are being expanded. Another 34 or so are under construction and scores more are in the planning stages. The soaring demand for crop-based fuel is coming when world grain stocks are at the lowest level in 34 years and when there are 76 million more people to feed each year.

The U.S. investment in biofuel production in response to runaway oil prices is spiraling out of control, threatening to draw grain away from the production of beef, pork, poultry, milk, and eggs. And, most seriously, the vast number of distilleries in operation, under construction, and in the planning stages threatens to reduce grain available for direct human consumption. Simply put, the stage is being set for a head-on collision between the world's 800 million affluent automobile owners and food consumers. Given the insatiable appetite of cars for fuel, higher grain prices appear inevitable. The only question is when food prices will rise and by how much. Indeed, in recent months, wheat and corn prices have risen by one fifth.

For the 2 billion poorest people in the world, many of whom spend half or more of their income on food, rising grain prices can quickly become life threatening. The broader risk is that rising food prices could spread hunger and generate political instability in low-income countries that import grain, such as Indonesia, Egypt, Nigeria, and Mexico. This instability could in turn disrupt global economic progress. If ethanol distillery demand for grain continues its explosive growth, driving grain prices to dangerous highs, the U.S. government may have to intervene in the unfolding global conflict over food between affluent motorists and low-income consumers.

There are alternatives to using food-based fuels. For example, the equivalent of the 3 percent gain in automotive fuel supplies from ethanol could be achieved several times over—and at a fraction of the cost—simply by raising auto fuel efficiency standards by 20 percent.

Investing in public transport could reduce overall dependence on cars. There are other fuel options as well. While there are no alternatives to food for people, there is an alternative source of fuel for cars, one that involves shifting to highly efficient gas-electric hybrid plug-ins. This would enable motorists to do short-distance driving, such as the daily commute, with electricity. If wind-rich countries such as the United States, China, and those in Europe invest heavily in wind farms to feed cheap electricity into the grid, cars could run primarily on wind energy, and at the gasoline equivalent of less than $1 a gallon.

Additional data and information sources at or
For more in-depth information see Chapters 2 and 10 in Plan B 2.0, at
For reprint permission contact



Shell says biofuels from food crops immoral

6 July 2006 3:00am HST

history of the Shell corporate logo over the last century

by Reuters on 6 July 2006

Royal Dutch Shell, the world's top marketer of biofuels, considers using food crops to make biofuels "morally inappropriate" as long as there are people in the world who are starving, an executive said on Thursday.

Eric G Holthusen, Fuels Technology Manager Asia/Pacific, said the company's research unit, Shell Global Solutions, has developed alternative fuels from renewable resources that use wood chips and plant waste rather than food crops that are typically used to make the fuels.

Holthusen said his company's participation in marketing biofuels extracted from food was driven by economics or legislation.

"If we have the choice today, then we will not use this route," Malaysia-based Holthusen said at a seminar in Singapore.

"We think morally it is inappropriate because what we are doing here is using food and turning it into fuel. If you look at Africa, there are still countries that have a lack of food, people are starving, and because we are more wealthy we use food and turn it into fuel. This is not what we would like to see. But sometimes economics force you to do it."

The world's top commercially produced biofuels are ethanol and biodiesel.
Ethanol, mostly used in the United States and Brazil, is produced from sugar cane and beets and can also be derived from grains such as corn and wheat. Biodiesel, used in Europe, is extracted from the continent's predominant oil crop, rapeseed, and can also be produced from palm and coconut.

Holthusen said Shell has been working on biofuels that can be extracted from plant waste and wood chips, but he did not say when the alternative biofuel might be commercially available.

"We are not resting. We are doing what everybody needs to do. We have worked over time on an alternative to get away from food, and this is what we call the second generation of biofuels," he said.

He said Shell, in partnership with Canadian biotech firm Iogen Corporation, has developed "cellulose ethanol," which is made from the wood chips and non-food portion of renewable feedstocks such as cereal straws and corn stover, and can be blended with gasoline. Ethanol is typically extracted from sugarcane or grain.



Ethanol: A Tragedy in 3 Acts

29 April 2006 - 9:00am

GM corporate website pitch "Live Green Go Yellow" to go with corn based fuel alternative E85 ethanol

by Ed Wallace on 27 April 2006 in BusinessWeek

Amid the current panic about gas prices many people are embracing ethanol. But that's not such a good idea.

During the comment period for the RFG (reformulated gas) program, supporters of ethanol had argued that the volatile organic compound (VOC) emission standards in the program -- 42 U. S. C. 7545 (k) (3) (B) (i) -- would preclude the use of ethanol in RFG because adding ethanol to gasoline increases its volatility and raises VOC emissions, especially in the summertime.

The American Petroleum Institute v. the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [Docket #94-1502 (Heard by the U. S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and decided on April 28, 1995)]

If there were ever a time when the truth in advertising standards should be put back into place, it's now -- during the current (third) attempt to convince the public that the massive use of corn-derived ethanol in our gasoline supply will alleviate our need for foreign oil. Ultimately, the answer to just one question determines ethanol's actual usefulness as a gasoline extender: "If the government hadn't mandated this product, would it survive in a free market?" Doubtful -- but the misinformation superhighway has been rerouted to convince the public its energy salvation is at hand.

Act I, Scenes 1 and 2
The use of ethanol to reduce our dependence on foreign oil is nothing new. We also considered it during our nation's Project Independence in 1974, the year after the first Arab oil embargo. After the second energy crisis in 1979, an income tax credit of 40 cents per gallon of 190-proof ethanol produced was instituted as an incentive for refiners of ethanol to blend this product into gasoline.

Because this federal largesse now existed, within five years, 163 ethanol plants had been built -- but only 74 of them were still in operation. As gasoline availability opened up in the 1980s and gas prices went down, many ethanol plants simply went out of business.

Shortly thereafter, in yet another attempt to broaden the product's usage, Congress enacted a law that allowed car manufacturers to take excess mileage credits on any vehicle they built that was capable of burning an 85% blend of ethanol, better known as E85. General Motors (GM) took advantage of the credits, building relatively large volumes of the Suburban as a certified E85 vehicle. Although in real life that generation of the Suburban got less than 15 mpg, the credits it earned GM against its Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) ratings meant that on paper, the Suburban delivered more than 29 mpg.
Other manufacturers also built E85-capable vehicles -- one such car was the Ford (F) Taurus. Congress may have intended simply to create a market for this particular fuel by having these vehicles available for sale. But what the excess mileage credits actually did was save Detroit millions each year in penalties it would have owed for not meeting the CAFE regulations' mileage standards.

Act II, Scenes 1 and 2
In the mid-'90s the Clean Air Act of 1990 kicked in, mandating that a reformulated gasoline be sold in the nation's smoggiest cities. So the Clinton Administration again tried to create an ethanol industry in America, by having the Environmental Protection Agency mandate that fully 30% of the oxygenates to be used in gasoline under that program come from a renewable source. But members of the American Petroleum Institute had already geared up for the production of Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether (MTBE), their oxygenate of choice. The ensuing lawsuit was argued before the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia on February 16, 1995.

The EPA took the position that it had been given a mandate to find ways to conserve the nation's fossil-fuel reserves, so it needed a renewable fuel -- and ethanol neatly fit that bill. But there were problems with that argument, not least of which was the fact that the judges could find no charter or mandate from Congress that gave the EPA the statutory right to do anything about fossil fuel, reserves or otherwise.

Even more damaging, the EPA's own attorney admitted to the judges that because of its higher volatility, putting ethanol into the nation's fuel supply would likely increase smog where it was used. One of the judges, on hearing that the EPA was actively promoting a substance that could in fact diminish air quality, wondered aloud, "Is the EPA in outer space?"

The final decision favored the American Petroleum Institute. The judges agreed that the EPA was bound by law only to promote items that would improve air quality -- not to reverse the nation's advances in smog reduction. That decision was apparently forgotten with record speed. In the summer of 2000, ethanol as an additive was mandated for the upper Midwest, including the city of Chicago and parts of the state of Wisconsin.

Act II, Scenes 3 and 4
After Asian economies had collapsed in the late '90s, the price of oil had fallen to as low as $10 a barrel. Gasoline was selling in many parts of the U.S. for as little as 99 cents a gallon. But by 2000, the per-barrel price had risen to $32, and gas was averaging $1.55 a gallon nationally. As they are today, the nation's drivers were incensed by the rising prices of gasoline and oil. And then reformulated gasoline made with ethanol hit Chicago and points north. Gas prices there suddenly soared over $2.00, with a few stations selling their product for as much as $2.54 per gallon.

At some stations in southeast Wisconsin, where reformulated gasoline wasn't required and gas cost considerably less, pumps ran dry in the panic, as savvy consumers topped off their tanks. Citing the Lundberg Survey, the Associated Press on June 12, 2000, stated, "Dealers in the Midwest, where many cities use a reformulated gas blended with the corn derivative ethanol, are paying a premium at wholesale."

Just a few months later, Brazil -- which had worked toward energy independence since the mid-'70s oil crisis and had already mandated that the percentage of ethanol in its fuel be raised to 24% -- was forced to import ethanol refined by the Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM) when the nation's sugar-cane crop suffered a devastating drought. Brazil understood that a year of poor crops was just as damaging to its national fuel supply as Iran taking its oil off-market would be to the rest of the world.

Then came the third act in this ethanol play -- and possibly the most misleading and disingenuous PR campaign ever.

Act III: Cue the Fact-Checker

It started with Congress, which mandated that even more ethanol be used to extend the nation's fuel supply. From General Motors, an ad campaign called "Live Green, Go Yellow" gave America the impression that by purchasing GM vehicles capable of using E85 ethanol, we could help reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

What GM left out of its ads was that the use of this fuel would likely increase the amount of smog during the summer months (as the EPA's own attorneys had admitted in 1995) -- and that using E85 in GM products would lower their fuel efficiency by as much as 25%. (USA Today recently reported that the Energy Dept. estimated the drop in mileage at 40%.)

But one final setup for the public has gone unnoticed. At the Web site,, which confirms the 25% to 30% drop in mileage resulting from the use of this blended fuel, another feature lets users calculate and compare annual fuel costs using regular gasoline to costs using E85.

But the government site's automatic calculations are based on E85 selling for 37 cents per gallon less than regular gasoline, when the USA Today article reports that at many stations in the Midwest E85 is actually selling for 13 cents per gallon more than ordinary gas. Using the corrected prices for both gasoline and E85, the annual cost of fueling GM's Suburban goes from $2,709 to $3,763. Hence the suggestion that truth in advertising should come back into play. Possibly GM could rename this ad campaign "Shell Out Green, Turn Yellow."

Epilogue: Get this Wasteful Show Off the Road
The other negative aspect of this inefficient fuel is that numerous studies have found that ethanol creates less energy than is required to make it. Other studies have found that ethanol creates "slightly" more energy than is used in its production. Yet not one of these studies takes into account that when E85 is used, the vehicle's fuel efficiency drops by at least 25% -- and possibly by as much as 40%. Using any of the accredited studies as a baseline in an energy-efficiency equation, ethanol when used as a fuel is a net energy waste.

Furthermore, no one has even considered the severe disruption in the nation's fuel distribution that mandating a move into ethanol would cause. Over the past month, gas stations from Dallas to Philadelphia and parts of Massachusetts have had their tanks run dry due to a lack of ethanol to blend. The newswires have been filled with stories bemoaning the shortage of trucks, drivers, railcars, and barges to ship the product. Ethanol can't be blended at refineries and pumped through the nation's gasoline pipelines.

The recent price spikes for gasoline have forcibly reminded the people of Chicago and Wisconsin of what happened when ethanol was forced on them during the summer of 2000. Moreover, the promise of energy independence that Brazil has explored through ethanol is widely misunderstood. Recently a Brazilian official, commenting on our third and most recent attempted conversion to ethanol, said that when Brazil tried using agricultural crops for ethanol, it achieved only a 1:1.20 energy conversion rate, too low to be worth the effort.

FINAL BOW? On the other hand, ethanol from sugar cane delivered 1:8 energy conversion, which met the national mandate. Unfortunately for us, sugar cane isn't a viable crop in the climate of our nation's heartland. But the part of Brazil's quest for energy independence that the media usually overlooks is that ethanol wasn't the only fuel source the country was working on: Its other, more important, thrust was to find more oil. To that end, last week Brazil's P50 offshore oil platform was turned on. Its anticipated daily output is high enough to make Brazil totally oil independent.

More smog, infinitely worse gas mileage, huge problems in distribution, and skyrocketing prices for gasoline. Maybe now that we're witnessing the third act in America's ethanol play, the upcoming epilogue will close this show forever. Even great advertising works only if the product does.

Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, given by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA. He hosts the talk show Wheels Saturdays from 8:00 to 1:00 on 570 KLIF and is a weekly columnist for the Fort Worth Star Telegram. E-mail:

Is Ethanol Worth the Hype?
by Christian Tokkelossi on 27 April 2006 for

No, ethanol isn't the green miracle fuel some make it out to be.

Where I come from we eat our food, we don’t burn it. Maize meal (usually just with salt and boiling water) is most of Africa’s staple food, eaten three times a day — by the more fortunate.

To go and burn it, albeit in a sophisticated internal combustion engine would be an act of lunacy and suicide for most Africans.

That’s why I’m skeptical about the latest hype surrounding ethanol. From Pres. Bush's State of the Union Address to the “Live Green, Go Yellow” campaign by General Motors, something feels fundamentally wrong. People have never voluntarily burned their crops.

A statement by Oregon State Representative Jeff Kropf (R-Halsey) should therefore not surprise us: "This is an opportunity to develop an industry that meets our future needs. Biofuels can reinvigorate the rural economy."

However, not all biofuels are created equal. Biodiesel can me made from any plant oil. Not ethanol.

To make ethanol, you need sugar, the other great American addiction. Corn has been singled by the Administration and Mass Media as the most viable option to provide this sugar. Corn accounts for almost half of all agricultural subsidies. American taxpayers spent a staggering $143.8 billion on farm subsidies.

Over the past ten years, more than $104 billion of which (72 percent) went to the top 10 percent of recipients. Only 11 percent of Oregon farmers qualified for federal subsidies last year. What is troubling is a statement by Tomas Endicott of SeQuential Biofuels, up until now Oregon’s largest producer of bio-diesel: "If the market is there for ethanol and biodiesel, we can and will build the facilities here.”

Seems like a lot of big players are lining up to assure their slice of the ethanol pie.
If we consider the fact that there are currently no tax incentives or subsidies for biodiesel, we can’t really blame them.

The efficiency of corn as a biofuel is still being debated in the scientific community. There are differences of opinion concerning the net energy balance of ethanol.

Results depend on how many factors are taken into account. If we consider the cost of the vast amounts of chemical fertilizer used to produce bumper crops of corn on the same piece of dirt year after year, the equation changes. Add to that the chemical run-off that ends up in rivers and all of a sudden ethanol doesn't look like such a green solution.

According to libertarian think tank the Cato Institute, “for every $1 of profit earned by (ADM‘s) ethanol operation it costs taxpayers $30.”

So why the sudden ethanol hype? Who stands to gain the most?

Politically it’s a net gain for the Republicans. Their bewildered herd of core constituents, suffering from acute PNEPD (post nine-eleven propaganda disorder) are buying into this latest hype lock, stock and barrel. No more begging their evil, A’rab pushers for oil. The endangered all-American family farmer is grateful for any crumbs the federal government would kick his way and is sure to show his gratitude at the ballot box.

The real winners however, are the big agribusinesses. Agricultural corporations enjoy huge subsidies and tax breaks, and in return for these welfare checks, make sure the Republican election machine gets plenty of $$$ to keep its gears greased.

Are we such desperate hydrocarbon junkies that we would resort to burning our own crops?

And why are we still stuck with essentially a 100-year-old technology? The Manhattan project took three years from conception to completion; the moon landing, eight years; and we honestly can’t figure out an alternative to the 100-year-old internal combustion engine?

I simply don’t believe it. If we consider the existence of current technology: the fact that the NYPD has a hydrogen fuel cell as their main backup generator, and that double-decker buses in London have run on it, too, this all starts to feel a little sinister. Perhaps the biggest junkie in the room is not the American consumer, but rather the military-industrial complex that's been dictating their destiny since 1945.

If we consider how many practical everyday things were invented by the military, from duct tape to radar, sonar and the Internet, I have to come to the conclusion that if the military for some reason was forced to come up with an alternative fuel by the end of the year, it would happen.

But until I see a hybrid A-1 Abrahams tank, I will remain a cynic.


Ethanol Facts

17 April 2006 - 8:00am

Important ethanol facts
by William C. Follmer on 17 April 2006

Your front page article on ethanol usage left out some very critical information. Ethanol has only two-thirds the energy per gallon compared to gasoline. Thus, if gasoline is selling for $2.59 a gallon and you are buying E10 it had better cost less than $2.51 a gallon!

We use approximately 150 billion gallons of gasoline a year. The total U.S. ethanol production is approximately 3.5 billion gallons a year. To provide the government requirement of 10 percent ethanol to all the gasoline used would require 15 billions gallons of ethanol per year. This is an increase of nearly 4.3 times, or 430 percent. By what magical process are the farmers of the United States going to be able to increase their feedstock growth by 430 percent? It is simply not feasible! This means that we must somehow import huge volumes of ethanol. So much for "energy independence."

If one goes further down this outrageous path to E85 then we would need 191 billion gallons of ethanol a year, an increase over present production of nearly 55 times or 5,500 percent.

The obvious conclusion is that ethanol may have a place as a fuel additive but not as a major energy source.