Monday, August 01, 2005

(Not) Covering the Ethanol Controversy

A recent study by researchers at Cornell University and the University of California-Berkeley's College of Engineering confirms the results of earlier research that finds that producing ethanol requires more fossil fuel energy than the petroleum it would replace. This result was confirmed for ethanol produced from corn, switch grass, wood, soybeans, and sunflowers. The reason for this surprising result is that it takes a lot of energy to grow the crops (fertilizer, pesticides, farm machinery, irrigation, and processing) and to transform them into ethanol. Not everyone agrees with this however; ethanol has a lot of political support, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture believes that ethanol delivers more energy than is consumed in making it.

The Cornell-Berkeley study was well covered when it was released in early July. However, surely this basic controversy about ethanol should be reflected in subsequent coverage of ethanol-related stories. Ben Shouse does a good job in today's Argus Leader. He notes that the recently-passed Energy bill includes increased subsidies ethanol production, but acknowledges right in the lead that "critics are renewing a longstanding claim that making the alternative fuel makes more energy than it produces, harming the economy and the environment."

But consider Stephan Theil, in Newsweek International for August 8. Theil is full of enthusiasm for "biofuels," including ethanol, and provides lots of interesting information about increased production of ethanol internationally. And while he acknowledges that government subsidies play an important role in promoting ethanol, he completely fails to mention that ethanol may be a net energy loser.

Newsweek has a bad record on this issue, with the estimable Fareed Zakaria pushing the idea back in the March 7 issue that cars could get 500 miles per gallon. Zakaria based this idea on the idea that hybrid vehicles could be improved to get 75 miles to the gallon, and that if they used a blend of 15 percent petroleum and 85 percent ethanol, that would equate to 400 to 500 miles to the gallon of petroleum. Nowhere did Zakaria mention the energy that it takes to make this ethanol. And while there is a controversy over whether ethanol production requires more energy than it produces, there is no doubt that ethanol production does require significant inputs of fossil fuels. So the idea that using ethanol could lead to a 500 mile per gallon car is absurd.