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Why Yellow Isn't Green: Bioengineer Tad Patzek Shucks GM's Maize Alternative
The Gen-X spin-doctor in a cornfield asks, “What if the answer to our dependence on oil was growing right in front of us?”

The paisley-daisy soulstress follows up, “What if we could lower greenhouse gas emissions with a fuel that grew back every year?”

These children of the corn are blanketing TV, the web and print media as part of General Motors’ ad campaign — launched at this year’s Superbowl — promoting an ethanol-powered future. They’re styled to look like members of Amnesty International and the Green Party — the kind of folk you might ask, “are you hiding any bud in that corn field?” The subtext that GM wants us to consider is: What if we stopped raging against the machine and started pumping serious ethanol?

The skeptic inside me wonders, what if General Motors’ is attempting to commodify our dissent? What if unsuspecting consumers get behind GM’s lineup of cool hunter models asking greenwashed “what if “ questions.

A GM-pickup-truck-Dixie-chick joins the TV corn-fed lineup. “What if a company had already built over 1.5 million cars and trucks that could run on this fuel,” she asks?

My guess is the company would want to sell them.

GM’s fleet of “flex fuel” vehicles runs on — take your pick — gas or ethanol. Their maize alternative ad campaign — a peak oil multicultural corn fest — is branded with the slogan “Live green. Go yellow. “ Yellow is e85 ethanol.

Ahhh, sweet ethanol — the ingredient in fermented and distilled liquors that gets you shitfaced. You can also find ethanol in solvents, medicines, colognes and rocket fuel.

If you visit the Kansas Ethanol website, you’ll learn that “e85 is the term for motor fuel blends of 85 percent ethanol and just 15 percent gasoline. The Kansas site goes on to say that “Besides its superior performance characteristics, ethanol burns cleaner than gasoline; it is a completely renewable, domestic, environmentally friendly fuel that enhances the nation's economy and energy independence.”

Dude. Completely renewable? Sounds like energy independence from oil and a no-sweat green lifestyle is upon us.

But green is not the vibe UC Berkeley geoengineering professor Tad Patzek picks up from e85. His findings suggest that going yellow is not anywhere near going green.

I spoke with Patzek on The Politics of Food, Joy Hought’s Thursday morning KUCI radio talk program. We ask him what’s behind GM’s ethanol binge.

“General Motors is struggling for its own survival,” Patzek says. “I think it's a desperate move of a desperate company which has obsolete products and is trying to sell them. Instead of going after the market for more efficient and more durable and better cars, General Motors is selling another empty image.”

GM, you may recall, is the company that ONE: posted a $10.6 billion net loss in 2005. TWO: bungled its labor costs so badly, it’s now paying employees $140,000 each just to walk away. THREE: announced it would cut 30,000 hourly jobs and close or scale back operations at a dozen U.S. and Canadian locations. FOUR: is represented on the New York Stock Exchange with shares that have lost almost a third of their value over the past year. And FIVE: continues to fight a criminal probe into its relationship with suppliers.

Poor GM. Shouldn’t we feel at least guardedly grateful that the floundering mega-company is trying to become a green giant? And after all, isn’t ethanol good for the environment?

“If you want to do a complete mass balance,” Patzek says, “which means mass-in equals mass-out — and also energy balance — you will find out that you are using in an ethanol refinery between five to twelve times more energy to produce ethanol from corn than you would to produce diesel fuel or gasoline from crude oil.”

That’s what I call negative energy. If Patzek is right, it makes no sense to pump yellow. But according to The American Coalition for Ethanol (ACE), Patzek is dead wrong.

“That claim is just outrageous,” says Ron Lamberty, ACE Vice President of Market Development. “The bottom line is that it takes 35,000 BTUs of energy to turn a bushel of corn into a gallon of ethanol, and that gallon of ethanol contains at least 77,000 BTUs. What kind of math is being used to turn this number into a negative?”

ACE claims that Patzek’s research is incorrect and dated. Farm machinery and operational procedures, they say, have improved greatly since Patzek inputted his figures.

Patzek disagrees. He says that ACE’s numbers don’t account for coal — which would eventually be used as the market expanded — in ethanol processing.

ACE counters that Patzek’s ethanol research is tainted because of his work as an expert witness and consultant for Shell Oil Company.

“Patzek is not a disinterested third party in this debate.” ACE says. “It shouldn't be shocking that someone with such a background in the oil industry would come out opposed to ethanol, a viable alternative to oil,”

It also shouldn't be shocking that the American Coalition for Ethanol would come out in favor of ethanol.

With the demise of the fuel additive MTBE, the petrol-industry is relying heavily on, you guessed it, ethanol as a replacement. Demand for "e" has rocketed its price. Wholesale ethanol is now up to $2.75 a gallon. Meanwhile, the average retail price of gasoline in the United States is $2.50 a gallon.

Ethanol also receives a hefty federal tax subsidy of about 52 cents per gallon, making Archer Daniels Midland one of the leading takers of corporate welfare. Their ethanol lobby has gained enough political sway to ensure lax enforcement of federal and state pollution standards at ethanol production facilities. Is that what George Bush meant when he said his administration "fully supports" alternative energy programs and is "proud of US inventiveness in weaning America from foreign suppliers of petroleum products"?

But never mind all of that. What if Patzek is wrong? What if ethanol produced from corn creates 10-15 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than burning gasoline? Isn’t that green enough for you?

The answer is no. If ACE gets its way, corporate America will produce and process biofuel en masse — enough to perpetuate our energy lifestyle. The not-so-invisible hand of the marketplace will lobby for more farm subsidies. More rain forests will be bulldozed to make way for more farmland. Consider, if you will, the carbohydrate economy and the corporate farm.

“If we get hung up on using biofuels to a degree than is larger than, let's say, half a percent of all fuel use in the United States — maybe one percent — then we are encroaching on sources of supply which will have to be developed or are being developed in the tropics,” Patzek warns.

Growing corn, oil palm, and rapeseed — the bio-mass of ethanol — to keep pace with our current energy needs, will usher in a new age of corporate farming, insecticides, water pollution, and terminator seeds. Corn is also exceptionally hard on soil nutrients. If yellow is green, organically speaking, a field should lay fallow for six years after every crop. Yeah, like that’s going to happen.

OK. Let’s leave the rainforests out of it. Is the land that we now have under intense agriculture here in the United States viable for growing biofuel crops?

“I have a very hard time imagining many of these very large agricultural systems surviving more than 50 years,” Patzek says. “Remember that in Iowa today more than half of the topsoil is gone — eroded away — and the remaining half is eroding rather quickly as well. If you look at California, it is enormously subsidized by water — imported water and also fossil fuels. Because of this very intense agriculture, the land is being deteriorated rapidly.”

Uh oh. Sounds like using biofuels might have a steep downside. Which brings us to a question that GM’s hipster yellowheads failed to ask: What if the answer to our dependence on oil isn’t about more energy? What if it’s about changing the way we live? Patzek thinks we need longterm overarching solutions to balance our energy books, not GM marketing plans. This doesn’t sound like the philosophy of a Shell Oil shill to me.

“We will have to redesign our cities so that you don't have to drive for every errand for every little thing you ever want to do in your life,” Patzek says. “This means a very large restructuring of our society to make it more efficient. Nobody’s talking about these things. They don’t even enter the equation. We're all worried about the net fossil energy balance of corn ethanol, which is a non-issue.”

Speaking of restructuring, Hought tells Patzek about Fernando Florez, a previous guest on The Politics of Food. Florez represents South Central Farmers, a group that for the last 13 years has operated a 14-acre urban farm — America’s largest community garden — in the heart of Los Angeles. Close to 400 families are fed with their harvest, but alas, the farm’s fate depends on the legality of an LA municipal government back-room deal with a developer.

In LA, as in the rest of America, 10 percent of our energy use every year is for food production and processing. The majority of this energy is not used on the farm, but on refrigeration, heavy chemical processing of food and transportation.

There is little refrigeration and no transportation or chemical processing involved in South Central Farmers' food production. That’s what I call green. These people aren’t asking “What if?” They’re taking part in a solution to rising fuel costs associated with feeding America . . . and they are about to be evicted and replaced by a storage warehouse.

“Oh my,” says Patzek. “This is, in fact, a crime against humanity. It really is. It’s nothing less than that. If we think in these terms — that a warehouse is more important than feeding people and providing sustainable agriculture — than we are really jumping off a precipice and I have an uneasy feeling that many of us are.”

Patzek believes that one place we can start conserving energy is at the kitchen table.

“There will have to be structural changes in agriculture.” Patzek says. “There will have to be redevelopment of local markets so that people eat local foods, not foods flown or driven from thousands of miles away and refrigerated.”

What if Patzek is right about the future?

What if we get out of our cars, give up our suburban sprawl, our long-distance meals and vacations, think locally and get serious about living green? What if we walk to the local farmer’s market instead of drive to Taco Bell?

Or what if, instead, we go yellow?

What if the additional amount of biomass required to produce sufficient amounts of ethanol overburdens the world’s farmlands?

What if we darken our skies processing E with coal?

What if going yellow is a very bad idea?

What if that’s what we end up with?

— Nathan Callahan, April 12, 2006


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