February 13, 2008

Who is behind all the anti-ethanol information?

The Union of Concerned Scientists did a report some time back on the tactics that big oil was using to fight the global warming movement.

A new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists offers the most comprehensive documentation to date of how ExxonMobil has adopted the tobacco industry's disinformation tactics, as well as some of the same organizations and personnel, to cloud the scientific understanding of climate change and delay action on the issue. According to the report, ExxonMobil has funneled nearly $16 million between 1998 and 2005 to a network of 43 advocacy organizations that seek to confuse the public on global warming science.

Now that the oil companies have come around to the notion that global warming does exist, these groups have turned their attention to ethanol. Over the last couple of years I have seen quite a few articles written by authors associated with these groups spreading misinformation about ethanol. One article in particular I pointed out the connection in a recent post.

And as further proof, look at The Facts About Ethanol website. It plainly states it is a project of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an organization that Greenpeace says was funded by Exxon to dispute global warming.

And as was pointed out in this recent post, the oil companies are funding university studies with the goal of discrediting ethanol's benefits.

Academia plays a role as well. There is perhaps no one more hostile to ethanol than Tad W. Patzek, a geo-engineering professor at the University of California at Berkeley. A former Shell petroleum engineer, Patzek co-founded the UC Oil Consortium, which studies engineering methods for getting oil out of the ground. It counts BP (BP ), Chevron USA, (CVX ) Mobil USA, and Shell (RDS ) among its funders. A widely cited 2005 paper by Patzek and Cornell University professor David Pimentel concluded that ethanol takes 29% more energy to produce than it supplies—the most severe indictment of the biofuel. Michael Wang, vehicle and fuel-systems analyst at the Energy Dept.'s Argonne National Laboratory, says among several flaws in the study is the use of old data and the overestimation of corn farm energy use by 34%. Pimentel defends the study. In a recent update, he and Patzek hiked the estimate of ethanol's energy deficit to 43%.

A more moderate conclusion comes from a recent study by the University of California at Davis, which last year received a $25 million grant from Chevron to study biofuels. It said the energy used to produce ethanol is about even with what it generates and that cleaner emissions would be offset by the loss of pasture and rainforest to corn-growing. Only a small part of the research backed by the grant will involve ethanol, says Billy Sanders, UC Davis' research director. The primary focus will be developing alternative processes and feedstocks for biofuel that is not ethanol.

In addition to these two examples there are many others. Many of the most recent studies that have proved unflattering to ethanol were produced at universities that recently received funding from oil companies.

For example the most recent study that I commented on in this post that suggested that biofuels are worse for the environment than petroleum based fuels because of the changes in land use has links to oil money.

The study was conducted by researchers from Princeton and Iowa state. Princeton received $15 million in 2000 from BP to set up it's Carbon Mitigation Initiative. Iowa State has received $22.5 million from ConocoPhilips in 2007.

Another recent study by the Nature Conservancy concluded that because of land use changes biofuels released 17 to 420 times more greenhouse gases than the fossil fuels they replaced. Just a quick Google search shows that they too have received oil money.

Two major oil companies that support the Alaska drilling — BP and Exxon Mobil — hold Conservancy leadership council seats. Exxon Mobil has donated $5 million to the Conservancy. Another supporter of drilling, Phillips Alaska, has given at least $1 million, records show.

Livestock groups have also gathered together to oppose ethanol production. As the Wall Street Journal recently noted...

In the past, livestock farmers supported ethanol because it was good for the overall farm economy. But now they began to complain that the higher corn price cut sharply into their profits. A meat-producer trade group called the American Meat Institute took a stand against federal support for biofuels last December, joined soon after by the National Turkey Federation and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

So it probably should come as no surprise that the recent study by Kansas State that found that E. Coli increased in cattle fed distillers grains as opposed to those fed a diet that didn't contain distiller grains was sponsored by the National Cattleman's Beef Association.

Drouillard, James S., Nagaraja, Tiruvoor G., and Renter, David G., National Cattlemen's Beef Association, $36,750, "Strategies to Address Adverse Effects of Distiller's Grains on Prevalence of E. coli O157:H7 in Feedlot Cattle."

And this is just a few quick examples.

None of this is meant to suggest that research shouldn't be done on the various issues that surround biofuels. But the key point here is how the information is presented. We all know that both sides will conduct research and present facts in a way that looks best for their cause. In other words we expect that information coming from the biofuels industry may be overly optimistic and that information coming from groups opposing biofuels may be overly pessimistic.

But when we see something coming from a third party we expect the information to be more realistic and accurate. So if the opposition groups can hide their involvement they get to spread their overly pessimistic message with the added credibility provided by these seemly neutral third parties.

In closing, be careful where you get your information from. Check the sources and the organizations behind the information and only believe information that you can back through multiple independent sources. And that includes information I provide.


Dave said...

Good post and I agree with a lot of the points, particularly that there is definitely a campaign against ethanol. Just a couple comments -- The ConocoPhillips $22.5 million actually is funding my work at Iowa State and was unrelated to the ISU economics prof involved in the GHG paper on ethanol. Also, just wanted to say that although the oil companies are definitely dragging their feet particularly with E85 blending infrastructure, I think a lot of them have faced facts after the most recent RFS and Exxon and BP are beginning to pony up a lot of dough so that they aren't left behind in the biofuels push. Anyway, definitely not disagreeing with you, just wanted to let you know I've got a little 1st hand knowledge about ConocoPhillips and ISU.

Michael A. Gregory said...

I understand what you are saying and believe that most of the money given to universities does go to needed research. In the case of ISU, ConocoPhillips made a 8 year $22.5 million deal that involved $1.5 million being given in 2007. It is awfully hard to trace money around a collage campus but only $1.3 million went to the Biofuels Research Program and the other $200,000 I can't figure out where it went.


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