Why Yellow Isn't Green: Bioengineer Tad Patzek Shucks GM's Maize Alternative
Gen-X spin-doctor in a cornfield asks, “What if the answer
to our dependence on oil was growing right in front of us?”
paisley-daisy soulstress follows up, “What if we could lower
greenhouse gas emissions with a fuel that grew back every year?”
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?
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.
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?
guess is the company would want to sell them.
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.
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.
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.”
Completely renewable? Sounds like energy independence from oil
and a no-sweat green lifestyle is upon us.
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
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
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.”
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.
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?
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.”
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.
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?”
claims that Patzek’s research is incorrect and dated. Farm
machinery and operational procedures, they say, have improved greatly
since Patzek inputted his figures.
disagrees. He says that ACE’s numbers don’t account
for coal — which would eventually be used as the market expanded — in
counters that Patzek’s ethanol research is tainted because
of his work as an expert witness and consultant for Shell Oil Company.
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
also shouldn't be shocking that the American Coalition for Ethanol
would come out in favor of ethanol.
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.
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"?
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?
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.
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
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.
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?
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
believes that one place we can start conserving energy is at the
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.”
if Patzek is right about the future?
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?
what if, instead, we go yellow?
if the additional amount of biomass required to produce sufficient
amounts of ethanol overburdens the world’s farmlands?
if we darken our skies processing E with coal?
if going yellow is a very bad idea?
if that’s what we end up with?
Callahan, April 12, 2006