A Free-Market Energy Blog

Sound Science for Thee, but Not for Me (does ethanol analysis apply in Obama’s new science world?)

By Jerry Taylor -- March 13, 2009

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.


  1. Andrew  

    As far as I’m concerned, Bush’s stem cell policy wasn’t “politics” or “ideology” trumping science but rather an attempt to base policy on that matter on ethics and not just science. Now, you can criticize Bush’s position from with the realm of ethics, to the extent you object to those, and science, to the extent you feel that the science is being distorted. But it doesn’t make sense to me to object to ethics on scientific grounds, or vice versa. On the other hand, Obama as far as ethanol goes, is actually ignoring the ethics ~and~ the science on ethanol-in favor of his political correct (distorted) “science” and “ethics”.


  2. Bob R Geologist  

    We are still within the grip of bad policy supported by bad science due to a few hundred venal scientists who have been lured by very large research grants, mainly of Gov’t origin. Their project is to come up with a climate model that will support the hypothesis that carbon dioxide is responsible for our current warm spell that has been demonstrably backsliding this past ten years. The newspapers have been seduced by the wild claims made by radical environmental groups that never has world temperatures increased so rapidly since the Industrial Revolution began some 150 years ago and is in danger of becoming uncontrollable if man’s contribution of CO2 is allowed to rise beyond present limits in our air (380 ppm). A study of past climates shows that this has not happened, even when CO2 has increased more than 12 x the present level. Over 30,000 US scientists have looked at the real science and we have submitted a petition () to our Gov’t that CO2 is not responsible for the warm up and that it is a vital necessity in our air for growth of vegitation and enhancement of the world’s food supply.


  3. Carbonicus  

    For all of you in love with cap & trade, here is something you should know. If all Annex I and Annex II nations agreed to and implemented Kyoto, and were able to meet and keep their emission reduction targets through the year 2100, the difference in temperatures that could be expected from this effort vs. “business as usual” (scenario IS 92A in the UN IPCC reports) would be between .13 and .20 degrees Celsius. Don’t miss the decimal. That’s less than a quarter of a degree Celsius in about 100 years from now. Which is wholly within natural climate variability by any scientists measure.

    And the cost of making this less-than-a-quarter-of-a-degree difference? 2-4% of GLOBAL GDP annually. Which is in the high hundreds of billions EACH YEAR in the first decade or two, rising to tens of trillions EACH YEAR after about 2030. With US GDP at $14 trilion, this starts out – on the low end of this range – at $280 billion PER YEAR, and at the high end at $560 billion PER YEAR for the US. Before you dismiss these as Exxon or some other corporate numbers, you should know that EVEN THE UN IPCC’S OWN ESTIMATES ARE WITHIN THIS RANGE. In other words, even the UN body whose reports have recommended Kyoto and its future progeny does not argue these costs.

    If these costs would, say, avoid a future temperature increase of 5 or more degrees Celsius, we might be able to justify these expenses against the toll such warming might cause. But they won’t.

    There are many ways that we could achieve much greater environmental improvement for much less cost. With 1-2 billion people on the planet still not having clean water, basic sanitation, enough food, and living in energy poverty, for the developed world to spend these enormous amounts on something that might make a quarter of a degree difference in a hundred years is morally bankrupt. This is the ultimate irony of the gaiarrhea spewed by Al Gore and the liberal supporters of CO2 emissions reduction.

    Peer reviewed studies (hundreds) have shown that in a doubled environment of CO2, it is possible that the incremental crop yield increases ALONE could be enough to feed a quarter of the planet’s population. Geological records (hundreds) have proven that CO2 has been more than double the current level (about 385 parts per million) through the planet’s history. Ironically, it is exactly becausse of the productivity in biomass that occurred during these times that we have been able to derive the quality of life we have achieved in the western world on the back of the “fossil fuels” that some now seek to demonize.

    Anthropogenic “global warming” is political science. The works of people like Lindzen, Spencer, Christy, Singer, Seitz, McKitrick, McIntyre, Soon, Baliunas, Michaels, Balling, Lomborg and hundreds of others make this more than clear.

    It is well that “green” and “sustainability” are top of mind with many Americans – and many more in the EU. A greater focus on resource efficiency, energy efficiency, waste and other similar measurable, tangible environmental metrics will benefit us all. But trying to control the climate through CO2 emissions is dangerous, wasteful folly, and it’s not at all about “the environment”, “saving the planet”, or “saving humanity”.

    If you want to get back multiples of each dollar invested in environmental improvement, then NEVER try and do it via CO2 emissions reduction/regulation. There isn’t a person on this planet of any credibility who can demonstrate such a cost/benefit equation that passes the red face test with intelligent people.

    And if the American public doesn’t wake up to this sooon, you will see it hit your wallets in ways that no one can completely predict, for we are about to tax EVERY aspect of life as we know it.


  4. Bob R Geologist  

    Thank you Carbonicus for the complete and total debunking of this outrageous scam. From my knowledge of ancient climates it was apparent to me when I read Kyoto 10 years ago.


  5. Mike Mellor  

    About 20 years ago I bought some gimmicky body suits made out of a kind of spandex. They were designed to make all body movement difficult. By restricting my movement they would turn every minute of every day into a muscle-building moment. Guess what, at the end of every day I was completely worn out and I didn’t build any muscle!

    One of the laws of economics is that if central government wants to discourage an activity, all they have to do is make it 5 per cent more expensive. Proposed carbon taxes and cap-and-trade will discourage ALL economic activity while having no discernible effect on global CO2 levels.


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