Earlier this week, President Obama signed an administrative directive to ensure that scientific fact – not ideological fancy – informs federal policy. Well, good for him. Now that he’s overturned the Bush administration’s prohibitions against using federal money to undertake some forms of research associated with embryonic stem cells, up next should be an administrative about-face on corn ethanol as a means of addressing climate change. Alas, the possibility that Obama will admit error on this matter is only slightly better than the possibility that Jessica Simpson will someday win the Nobel Prize for physics. Ideology trumping science? Bad. Politics trumping science? Business as usual.
Regardless, let’s quickly review the literature on ethanol and climate change. A number of studies have been published that attempt to identify all of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with both producing and burning corn ethanol. Those skeptical of corn ethanol will be comforted by Hill et al (2009), Groode and Heywood (2007), and Patzek (2004). Supporters of corn ethanol will be comforted by Liska et al (2009) Adler et al (2007), Wang et al (2007), Hill et al (2006, although the lead author seems to have since gone into the skeptic’s camp with his 2009 paper); Farrell et al (2006), and Nielsen & Wenzel (2005). A survey of those papers suggests that nothing can be said definitively regarding ethanol and greenhouse gas emissions relative to gasoline. Hence, there is room to argue either side of the point, although most of the papers finding greenhouse gas savings for ethanol relative to gasoline find that savings are extremely modest.
But … those studies all overlook two very important considerations that bear on the analysis. First, they ignore the impact that corn ethanol production has on crop prices and, thus, on land use decisions world-wide. Take that into account and the case for ethanol relative to gasoline goes up in smoke according to Searchinger et al (2008) and Pineiro et al (2009). Second, those studies assume lower nitrous oxide emissions (a potent greenhouse gas) from ethanol production than is actually the case. Plug in the more accurate estimates from Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen (2007) and, again, any case for ethanol disappears.
Now, I am not of the opinion that Congress should delegate legislative power to the National Academy of Sciences or somesuch body of scientists and defer to guys in white coats in the course of making public policy. But I am a bit tired of the standard liberal narrative that would have us believe that the Left is sound science and nothing but sound science 24/7. Science is used as a weapon of convenience by both Left and Right. If it’s helpful to their cause, they will pose and posture with the best of them. If not, scientists will be – at best – ignored and – at worse – ball-gagged in the attic.