Memo to Fact Checkers and Editors on Ethanol

Let's forget all the other issues surrounding ethanol for a moment  (we'll mention a really bad one below), and just consider one fact that is beyond dispute.  Ethanol has an energy content per gallon that is only about 65% of that of gasoline.  So, another way to put it is that it takes a bit over 1.5 gallons of ethanol to replace 1 gallon of gasoline.  There is nothing suspicious or sinister about this (ethanol is flawed for other reasons) or at all controversial. 

Therefore, when your paper prints something like this:

"The number of plants under construction is truly frightening,"
said Ralph Groschen, a senior marketing specialist with the Minnesota
Department of Agriculture who closely watches the state's ethanol
development. The country could go from 7 billion gallons of capacity
now to 12 billion gallons, or about roughly 10 percent of U.S. gasoline
capacity, in a few years, according to Groschen.

You need to understand that you and everyone else are failing at simple math.  In 2004 the US consumed just over 140 billion gallons of gasoline.  So, already, our media has failed the math test.  12 billion gallons would be 8.6%, but we will give them a pass on rounding that to "roughly 10 percent."  But this 8.6% only holds true if gasoline is replaced by ethanol 1:1.  Using the actual figures cited above, 12 billion gallons of ethanol is about 7.8billion gallons an a gasoline equivalent, which would make it  5.6% of US gasoline usage in 2004, and probably an even smaller percentage if we were to take the worlds "gasoline capacity" at face value, since surely capacity is higher than production.

I know it seems petty to pick on one paper, and probably would not be worth my time to bother if it was just this one article.  But this mistake is made by every MSM article I have ever seen on ethanol.  I can't remember any writer or editor ever getting it right.

By the way, if you want more on what is wrong with ethanol, check my past posts

Finally, the other day I pointed out how much of our food crop is getting diverted to fueling our cars, with negligible effect on CO2 or oil imports.  If you really want to be worried about ethanol, note this:

Biofuels need land, which means traditional food crops are being
elbowed off of the field for fuel crops. Biofuel production is
literally taking the food out of people's mouths and putting into our
gas tanks. Already, increased food costs sparked by increased demand
are leaving populations hungry. The price of wheat has stretched to a
10-year high, while the price of maize has doubled.

Need more
land? Clear cut some forest. Is there a word beyond irony to describe a
plan to mitigate climate change that relies on cutting down the very
trees that naturally remove carbon from the atmosphere? Stupidity,
perhaps? The logic is like harvesting a sick patient's lungs to save
her heart. Huge tracks of Amazon
rainforest are being raised to the biofuels alter like a sacrificial
lamb, and the UN suggests that 98 percent of Indonesia's rainforest
will disappear by 2022, where heavy biofuel production is underway.

need land? Just take it. The human rights group Madre, which is backing
the five-year moratorium, says agrofuel plantations in Brazil and
Southeast Asia are displacing indigenous people. In an editorial
published on CommonDreams last week, Madre Communication Director Yifat
Susskind wrote, "People are being forced to give up their land, way of
life, and food self-sufficiency to grow fuel crops for export."


  1. Tim:

    CommonDreams? Tell me you didn't just quote a blatantly Socialist website. Not just CNN socialist, we're talking Marx is my hero socialist. You really mean to do that?

  2. Corky Boyd:

    Math errors? Why do you think these idiots went to j-school in the first place? You don't have to have high math grades to get in.

    There is no hope for the media. Figures just get in the way anyway.

  3. PB:

    The media hasn't failed the math test. You have. Groschen and the media are comparing US ethanol production to US gasoline production. According to the calculation you describe, you're using US oil consumption instead of production.

    Coyote, this is a very basic mistake.

  4. EV:

    This is more on the source of the biofuel than the math.

    There are two sources of biofuels under development that could help make the whole anti-biofuel arguments moot. The first is biodiesel from algae, the second is ethanol from switch grass. Each one has the possibility of being more efficient than corn.

    And yes, I do realize this is a possibility and not a definite.

  5. Emil:

    Why do you say ethanol production is diverting land from food production ? Last time I checked, farmers all over the world have trouble selling the food they grow. This last year they just did not know how big the demand for corn would be, so they did not plant enough.

    Yes, there are people that are malnourished, but that's because they either cannot plant their own crops (drought/war/regulations) or cannot afford to buy the food they need to have a balanced diet.

    Still, I agree about the biofuel idea being stupid. It was tried in Rumania in the '80s to cut the oil and gas imports, and it was proved that in practice you put more energy in that you take out if you include paying for all the facilities and their maintenance: the country is still dotted with abandoned fermentation tanks. Biogas (methane) would have worked, but it was too cold and the tanks needed a lot of expensive insulation during the winter. It might work in warmer climates, but then any energy surplus would be just wasted on transporting the gas to where the gas it's needed. The project was abandoned even before the Communists lost power. Biodiesel fuel was not even tried officially, but it was tried by enterprising individuals and only when other fuels were not available. It's more expensive than normal diesel fuel, and using second-hand oil is a very bad idea: when burned in an engine it stinks like hell, makes a lot of smoke, and you have to clean the engine a lot to keep it working. The East-German automobile, the Trabant, could use almost any fluid that burns, but you would not want to drive behind one while it's using anything else but gasoline. Ethanol might work, but only if you have a nuclear power plant to power the distillation.

  6. Tony Edwards:

    Just a small one. If you are going to be picky on people's maths, be careful of your spelling. It's tracts, not tracks.