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Busting Big Oil Myths on the Renewable Fuel Standard: Part I

Geoff Cooper's picture
Renewable Fuels Association
  • Member since 2018
  • 18 items added with 7,572 views
  • May 24, 2013

Anyone with even a casual interest in energy policy knows that a full frontal assault has been launched against the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). Big Oil has gone on the offensive, using a variety of tactics to disparage the program and spread myths and misinformation about renewable fuels. Their champions in Congress have introduced bills to reform or repeal the RFS (the latest attempts to allow natural gas, a distinctly non-renewable fuel, to qualify for the RFS); their attorneys have filed multiple lawsuits to impede implementation; and their PR firms have launched aggressive media campaigns intended to undercut public and political support for renewables.

But let’s be clear. The RFS is under attack not because the policy is “broken” or “unworkable,” as claimed by the oil industry and other self-interested opponents of the program. Rather, the RFS is being assailed because it is working exactly as intended.

Remember, the primary objectives of the RFS were to reduce U.S. petroleum imports and consumption, diversify the energy supply with cleaner fuels, and introduce real competition into a fuel market that has been monopolized by oil for the better part of a century. By any measure, the program is succeeding on all counts. Think about it—if the RFS was truly “broken,” it wouldn’t be accomplishing any of these important policy goals, and thus it wouldn’t be a real threat to the interests of the entrenched fossil fuels industry. If the program was “not working” and failing to deliver on its promise of reducing petroleum use and imports, then Big Oil’s monopoly would still be intact and they wouldn’t give a second thought to the RFS.

The truth is, the RFS scares the pants off of the oil industry—and it should. Faced with the prospect of losing even more market share to renewable fuels like ethanol, the oil industry has pulled out all the stops to demonize the program and muddle the public discourse over renewable fuels. Big Oil and its surrogates are spending millions of dollars on an orchestrated public relations, legal, and legislative campaign aimed at undermining and ultimately dismantling the RFS. Would they be doing this if the RFS was truly “broken” and didn’t pose a real threat to their stranglehold on the U.S. economy? I think not.

In its conquest to tear down the RFS, the petroleum industry has employed a collection of well-worn myths and half-truths. Apparently, they subscribe to the theory that “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.” So, in an attempt to add some balance to the debate, we’re addressing a few of Big Oil’s biggest whoppers regarding the RFS and ethanol. Each week for the next month or so, we’ll expose a myth propagated by opponents of the RFS and set the record straight with facts and data. Up first is the ridiculous notion that the domestic shale boom obviates the need for renewable fuels.

Myth #1: “We don’t need renewable fuels anymore because of the boom in domestic oil production.”

Gee, where have we heard that one before? The oil industry has always wanted us to believe that we’ll never run out of oil, that alternatives to petroleum are a waste of time, and that in the words of former Vice President Dan Quayle, “The future will be better tomorrow.” In 1980, we were told there is “as much oil under the North Slope of Alaska as there is in all of Saudi Arabia.” Well, maybe not. Alaska field production peaked in 1988 and has plummeted ever since. Today, Alaska fields produce an amount of oil equal to just one-quarter of 1988’s peak production and half of the production level a decade ago. In 1999, British Petroleum (BP) trumpeted the Thunder Horse discovery in the Gulf of Mexico, which it said was the biggest discovery ever in the Gulf with “at least one billion barrels” of recoverable oil. Not exactly. Thunder Horse never even left the stable. According to the Oil Drum, “Thunder Horse was designed with an oil production capacity of 250,000 barrels per day. Clearly, it never hit that level, and seems to be already declining…There seems to be no production plateau, and it appears that production may be declining by as much as 25% per year.” In 2006, the Wall Street journal celebrated that Montana’s Elm Coulee field in the Bakken shale region was “…the highest-producing onshore field found in the lower 48 states in the past 56 years.” Well, it didn’t last long. According to energy analysts Chris Nelder, “…after about five years of drilling, it [Elm Coulee] was pretty well tapped out and the rigs moved on. It gave Montana a quick bump, then production fell off rapidly.” I could go on with other examples of over-promising and under-delivering by the oil industry, but you get the point. Oil resources are finite and fickle. In other words, take each press release boasting the next big discovery with a big grain of (tar) sand.

Today, the oil industry claims the Bakken, Eagle Ford, and Marcellus shale plays make renewable fuels a relic and the RFS unnecessary. “Don’t worry,” they say, “We can frack our way to energy independence!” Nonsense. History has shown us that when you’re dealing with exhaustible, non-renewable resources, what goes boom eventually goes bust. And there is increasing evidence that shale wells decline very rapidly after just a few years of production.

In any case, EIA’s most recent long-term projections show the U.S. being heavily reliant on imports of petroleum and products long into the future—even with aggressive assumptions about rising domestic unconventional oil production. According to EIA, U.S. production of conventional crude oil peaks in 2014 (that’s next yearfor those of you without a calendar handy), amidst an ongoing boom in unconventional oil production (e.g., tight oil from fracking, EOR, deepwater). Total U.S. oil production peaks in 2019, EIA says, while tight oil production peaks in 2020. Then U.S. oil production begins a steady slide. In essence, the shale boom just delayed the inevitable by a decade or so. EIA projects imports will continue to contribute roughly half of total U.S. crude oil supply (i.e., excluding other petroleum products), despite temporarily dropping slightly below 50% from 2016-2023 (47.8% is the low in 2019). That means Americans will continue to spend roughly $300 billion per year on oil imports, a large share of which comes from politically unstable and hostile regions.


Even if we could frack our way to energy independence, what would be the cost to the environment? After all, another important objective of the RFS was to supplant fossil fuels with cleaner, lower-emitting energy sources. On a full lifecycle basis, today’s ethanol emits about half of the greenhouse gas emissions as gasoline derived from tight oil from fracking. And don’t forget about the impacts of fracking on water and air quality. There is still much we don’t know about the effects of fracking on the natural environment, but what we do know isn’t reassuring. But that hasn’t stopped the oil and gas industry from drilling wells at a frenetic pace.

It’s true that tight oil production from shale is booming, and as a result total U.S. crude oil production is at its highest level since 1995. But the development of unconventional oil sources in no way means we should abandon the RFS or reverse the fantastic progress we’ve made toward cleaner, more sustainable energy sources.


Kevon Martis's picture
Kevon Martis on May 23, 2013

“….and introduce real competition into a fuel market ….”

What prevents someone from creating and selling a competitive fuel for less?

Does someone need to grant permission to do so? Is not the ability to make a lot of money by creating such a fuel not adequate in itself?

And are you serioulsy suggesting there are enough arable acres of ground in the US to grow all the fuel industry requires? You seem to argue that fossil fuel is growing ever scarcer and imply that ethanol and bio-diesel do not have profound limits in penetration, one being the near catastrophic impact on food price.

The insurmountable problems with “renwable fuel” is that they require far too much energy to create and deliver a poor value to the consumer. If that were not true, there would be no need to curry favor with the government. The world would beat a path to its door.

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on May 23, 2013

Geoff, I’m struggling to understand the appeal of biofuels like corn ethanol. Perhaps you can help me out.

The USA consumes about 134 Ggal of gasoline which is equivalent to 201 Ggal of corn ethanol per year. Productive land can yield about 400 gal/acre. The USA has about 400 million acres of cropland, implying that, if every single acre was used for corn ethanol production, the USA would produce 160 Ggal of corn ethanol. 

Furthermore, the EROI of corn ethanol is around 1.3:1. This implies that, in a hypothetical corn ethanol economy, every 1.3 gal produced delivers only 0.3 gal of useful fuel to society. Including this limit shrinks the 160 Ggal estimate to 37 Ggal per year.

Thus, from this simple ballpark estimate, if the USA does away with its entire grain production (importing all grains from elsewhere), it could produce 18.4% of its current gasoline consumption. 

Other biofuels like Brazilian sugarcane have a much better EROI and smaller carbon footprint, but are limited to a certain climate and involve a host of other environmental issues. 

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on May 24, 2013

Schalk, I recall your father is a farm scientist. I’ll offer an entirely different perspective you can ask him about.

There is no longer a way to feed the world the complex nutrients of a balanced diet using traditional crop, fish, livestock. Proteins are complex molecules that consist of some 21 L-alpha-amino acids. The days of clover, then soybeans, or other protein rich vegetation are not sufficient for the needs of 7 billion people. Other complex nutrients are similar. I want to emphasize the biochemistry of nutrition is complex.

But we can grow simple starch and simple sugar, since it has no complex organic Nitrogen, Sulfur, Phosphorus, etc. And given that biosynthesis is itself complex, we grow many limiting nutrients in a fermentation tank. The ethanol is really more a waste product that happens to burn.

Further, IIRC corn is itself a peculiar photosynthesis pathway type. Someday I should look it up, but there are photon limiting types and CO2 limiting types (C3 vs. C4) (???).

To conclude, I don’t want to sound like a corn ethanol fan, but there are other aspects to this science that are important. When the corn ethanol bandwagon started to roll I was pushing hay crop extracted feed, with cellulose waste. I fear that corn is killing the land and water. While pushing the hay crop approach, I met a Prof. who was part of figuring out how to feed the world after WWII. They worried Hitler might burn the crops in retreat, so plans were made to feed Europe alfalfa. We were lucky the dust bowl ended and the rains returned, or the world might now be very different. This ethanol PR guy should similarly be glad the rains came back this year or he would be eating dust right now.

Food should never be so politically corrupted as renewable energy is.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on May 24, 2013

As usual the non-myth truth is in the actual details.  The recent oil company concerns with the RFS2 annual standards has to do largely with consumer safety, not supposed market share monopoly considerations.  The EPA recently (and possibly prematurely) set annual conventional (corn) ethanol required blending targets at levels that require implementing the potentially risky new E-15 standard.  Refer to my comment on a recent TheEnergyCollective post.  Blindly blending and selling E-15 in order to meet the EPA RFS2 blending target could cause fuel leaks and fires in older vehicles and equipment not designed to operate on more corrosive E-15 blended gasoline.  If such an incident was to occur and a consumer were injured or worse, who do you believe will be held accountable?

As far as Myth #1, the combination of increased domestic oil (and natural gas liquids) production, increased vehicle & building efficiencies, and the 2007-2009 economic recession have accounted for the majority of the 3.3 million barrels per day (MBPD) reduced U.S. net oil imports over the past 5 years.  Refer to my past TheEnergyCollective post “Why Have US Oil Imports Declined in Recent Years”.  In 2012 13 billion gallons of ethanol were produced-blended as a result of the RFS2 requirement.  This represents about 25% of total reduced oil (2008-2012) imports, which is quite significant.  However, conventional corn ethanol cultivation-production is very energy intensive.  About 78% of the total energy content of corn ethanol comes from consuming domestic natural gas, coal and petroleum fossil fuels during the full cultivation-production-consumption lifecycle.  Refer to my past TheEnergyCollective post “Is Ethanol a Cost Effective Solution to Climate Change”.   This makes the net U.S. energy security benefit of RFS2 fairly small compared to increased domestic oil and natural gas liquids production in recent years. 

Paul O's picture
Paul O on May 24, 2013

Both you and Geoff should respond to the Rebuttals in this thread, and not just post-and -run

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on May 24, 2013

Yep, land area for corn ethanol is pretty hopeless.  Cellulosic biofuel (assuming we find a cost effective way to make it, hint, bio-methanol is cheaper) uses a few times less land.

However, if we instead synthesized fuel from renewable electricity (with, say 60% efficiency), fuel from wind power would use 6 times less land than cellulosic biofuel, and solar would use 40 times less land than biofuel.

So what kind of fuel can we synthesize from renewable electricity?  Just two: hydrogen (which is very expensive to transport to refueling stations, and expensive to use in a car), and ammonia (which works fine in modified ICEs but is toxic, but likely managable).

Of course, as of today in the US, any fuel made from electricity will not be economically competative with that made from fossil fuel.  Fortunately, ammonia is also a fuel that can be made from fossil fuel with carbon capture and sequestration.  It’s carbon free at the point of use.

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on May 24, 2013

Hydrogen can also be made from fossil fuels. In fact, we are now just starting a research project on a Chemical Looping Reforming reactor with embedded membranes which could lead to affordable hydrogen production with inherent CO2 separation. 

Chemical Looping Reforming is based on the somewhat more mature Chemical Looping Combustion which economic studies have found capable of producing electricity from natural gas at just a little over current prices (scale-up is challenging though). Chemical Looping Reforming could therefore produce hydrogen from natural gas with inherent CO2 separation for roughly 2-3 times the price per unit energy. This will make hydrogen competitive with gasoline, especially considering that hydrogen cars can get twice the MPG of ICE vehicles.

The issue is of course the cost of the hydrogen vehicle. Guess we’ll just have to wait and see what can be done about that. 

On the positive side though, EVs are fantastic to drive – powerful, quiet and smooth. Hydrogen vehicles can grant all of these benefits without the long charge times and short ranges of battery EVs. Top Gear actually did a nice piece on this some years back:

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on May 24, 2013

Interesting perspective, RIck. Yes, I am aware of the food conundrum in that it really is more of a nutrition issue than a calorie issue. Just a quick look at how global obesity rates are skyrocketing confirms this. 

I’ll ask my dad about this. He is very concerned about the agricultural future of Africa (population is projected to quadruple over this century) and might have some interesting views on this. 

Geoff Cooper's picture
Geoff Cooper on May 24, 2013


*First of all, “productive land” (e.g., Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska) can yield  500 gallons per acre + 1.7 tons of animal feed. And that only accounts for the grain–if some of the residue (e.g., corn stalks) is collected, this number can easily approach 800 gallons/acre.

*You’re assuming we will only make ethanol out of corn grain ad infinitum. Many would disagree with this notion. Substantial progress is being made toward using crop residues, municipal wastes, etc.

*More importantly, no one has ever suggested that ethanol can or should meet 100% of our gasoline demand. The old “it-would-take-all-our-cropland-to-make-enough-ethanol” schtick is just another red herring that gets us further away from debating the issues that really matter. The point is, and has always been, to reduce oil imports and diversify the transporation energy supply.

*Your EROI figure is outdated. The latest papers show EROI in the 2:1 range. And what do you assume about the EROI of the incumbent fuel? What is the EROI of the new marginal sources of crude beig produced today? 

Geoff Cooper's picture
Geoff Cooper on May 24, 2013

**”What prevents someone from creating and selling a competitive fuel for less?”

Well, for one thing an extremely complex web of regulations prevents (or, at the very least, substantially impedes) someone from creating and selling new fuels. This web was spun AFTER petroleum fuels had ascended to dominance, and essentially has protected those incumbent fuels from competitors. An entrepreneur or upstart industry can’t simply start selling its fuel on the so-called “open market” without first passing a gamut of testing required for regulatory approval (testing that, incidentally, most petroleum products, see MTBE, never had to go through).

Assuming a new fuel does successfully navigate the regualtory maze, it faces enormous headwinds in entering a market where production and distribution of the incumbent fuel is controlled by a relatively small numbers of huge, entrenched market players with seemingly endless resources.

**”Does someone need to grant permission to do so? Is not the ability to make a lot of money by creating such a fuel not adequate in itself?”

Unfortunately, yes. Consider the regrettable case study of the Zarco66 retail stations in Kansas. They wanted to offer E15 because they saw, as you characterize it, “the ability to make a lot of money” by selling the fuel. But Phillips66, the supplier of petroleum fuels to Zarco66, resorted to strong-arm tactics to prevent the retailer from offering a more renewable fuel that competes with their products. In other words, Zarco66 “asked for permisson” and was told no. See more here:

**And are you serioulsy suggesting there are enough arable acres of ground in the US to grow all the fuel industry requires?

See my response to Shalck above. No one has ever suggested corn ethanol can replace 100% of the gasoline supply. This is a straw man.

**The insurmountable problems with “renwable fuel” is that they require far too much energy to create and deliver a poor value to the consumer. If that were not true, there would be no need to curry favor with the government.

“Curry favor with the government”? Are you really suggesting the oil&gas industry has not curried favor with the government for 100+ years? Are you suggesting the government somehow favors renewable fuels over fossil fuels? I would encourage you to take a hard look at the tax code, which is chock full of giveaways and handouts for the fossil fuel folks–who you seem to claim are operating in the mythical “free market.”

Geoff Cooper's picture
Geoff Cooper on May 24, 2013


“Consumer safety”? Really? Since when has the oil industry cared about consumer safety? Remember MTBE? Benzene and other toxics? Lead? In each case, the oil industry strongly resisted efforts to limit or regulate the use of these substances that were known to have consumer health and safety impacts. Now they are fighting against controls on fracking chemicals and additional sulfur reductions, among other actions that would benefit consumer health and safety.

EPA and DOE have determined that E15 is a safe fuel for 80-85% of the vehicles on the road today. For older vehicles and smalle engines and boats, the use of E15 is prohibited by law. Some 40% of new vehicles (model year 2013) are explicitly approved by the manufacturers for E15 (including all new Ford and GM models). Please provide scientific support for your statement that E15 “could cause fuel leaks and fires.” (Let me guess, the infamous oil-funded CRC study? See DOE critique here: Already, more tha 30 million miles have been logged by consumerson E15 without a reported incident.

Please also provide evidence for your claim that corn ethanol is “very energy intensive.” Compared to what? Almost no liquid petroleum is used in the manufacturing of corn ethanol–a UC Berkeley study from a few years ago showed that only 5 units of petroleum energy are needed for the production of 100 units of ethanol energy. The remaining fossil fuel energy required to make ethanol comes from domestic natural gas–very little coal is used (save for generation of the small amounts of electricity needed in the corn ethanol production process).

I would encourage you to review the latest lifecycle energy and emissions analyses on corn ethanol. A good place to start is: Wang et al. (2012). “Well-to-wheels energy use and greenhouse gas emissions of ethanol from corn, sugarcane and cellulosic biomass for US use.” Environ. Res. Lett., 7 (2012) 045905 (13pp).


Geoff Cooper's picture
Geoff Cooper on May 24, 2013

Oh, you mean like Mark Green from American Petroleum Institute?

John Miller's picture
John Miller on May 25, 2013

Let’s begin with the CAA 1970 and its subsequent amendments.  The EPA originally approved MTBE as a gasoline oxygenate additive.  It was not until gas station buried tank leaks led to water contamination issues (MTBE does not biodegrade readily) that the Oil Industry initially-voluntarily stopped the use of MTBE to avoid the obvious environmental issues.  Benzene and other aromatics that were also uncontrolled early-on, are only toxic in pure-concentrated form (a fueling respiratory exposure issue that has been addressed by a combination of fueling pump/auto VR technologies).  The original aromatics regulatory focus had to do with light vehicle CO/VOC tailpipe emissions, which involved the Auto & Oil Industries working with the EPA and state Governments to develop effective improvements.  Hydraulic fracturing & Tier 3 is off subject.

I personally experienced the refining-pipeline-terminal-customer issues/equipment failures that developed with the original EPA oxygenate requirements (E-7.5 replaced MTBE).  Ethanol is very corrosive to rubber and many synthetic materials (seals, tubing, etc.).  Eventually the Oil and Auto Industries made material upgrades needed to avoid equipment failures (leaks).  New vehicles and FFV’s don’t have an issue with increased E-10 to E-15, it’s the older vehicles that are at risk to leaks/fires.  The EPA’s current solution is to post warning labels and place the responsibility on producers and customers.  The EPA/DOE may believe the issue is resolved, but those ultimately responsible are not convinced yet.  By the way, ethanol is definitely corrosive, but it can take a couple years for the failure to occur since the corrosion of fuel lines and seals can be relatively slow.

Ethanol full lifecycle cultivation-production-consumption is definitely very energy intensive.  Corn ethanol consumes about 0.78 MBtu of fossil fuels for every 1.0 MBtu finished ethanol product.  Read my post, it contains all the references including the DOE/EIA and the Argonne Lab (Wang’s outfit).  The fossil fuels mix of course depends on where the corn ethanol bio-refinery is located (power grid fossil fuels mix) and how it’s designed.  Some bio-refineries actually have coal fired steam plants used to provide process heat.  As far as petroleum, its consumption is very significant.  Beside corn fertilizer/cultivation equipment consumption ethanol must be transported (neat) via rail, marine and truck around much more efficient petroleum pipeline systems, for blending into gasoline at the local petroleum fuel terminals just prior to final truck shipment to retail outlets.  Ethanol must be segregated due to its corrosive properties once again and its affinity for picking up water and solids.

I analyzed Wang’s GREET model in detail a few years ago.  The corn ethanol lifecycle was reasonably accurate at that time, but the fossil fuels lifecycles were significantly in error (they used inaccurate international data rather than more accurate U.S. Refining data; which I shared the sources with them, but they have yet to correct the obvious errors in their model).  Sugarcane (restricted by tariffs strongly supported by the U.S. Corn/Ethanol lobbies) and cellulosic ethanol are once again off subject.  By the way, sugarcane ethanol production is much less energy intensive than corn ethanol, and cellulosic ethanol consumed (full lifecycle) fossil fuels are significantly greater than the finished biofuel’s heat content (i.e. it has a large ‘negative’ NEV based on current state-of-art technologies).

John Miller's picture
John Miller on May 25, 2013

It is interesting how business contract disputes can apparently develop into claims of big oil conspiracies.  In the case of Zarco 66 they appear to have contracted with Phillips 66 for a franchise deal and to become a ‘branded’ Phillips 66 dealer (service station).  Independent station owners typically agree to sell branded motor fuels with specific operations/quality controls and marketing standards, in return for some combination of capital (station upgrade investments) and operating expense (supply discounts) compensation.  In the case of Zarco 66, their franchise contract obviously allowed them to sell Phillips 66 regular gasoline and E-85 initially.  When they wanted to unilaterally blend and sell E-15, this plan probably violated their franchise contract.

Unlike E-85, E-15 is blended to very strict formula standards in refineries and terminals only.  Zarco 66’s apparent plan to blend conventional regular gasoline and denatured ethanol (from their two buried regular gasoline/denatured EtOH tanks) would very likely violate State and Federal gasoline specification regulations (starting with RVP).  Phillips 66 obviously objected to potentially violating Federal regulations for marketing their branded gasoline and appear to have exercised their franchise contract right to require Zarco 66 to use their two tanks for regular & premium gasoline (normal configuration for most dealers; also allows blending/selling medium grade gasoline; 50/50 reg./prem.).

The RFA letter to the EPA/FTC/DOE/USDA appears to over look Zarco 66’s franchise contract obligations and the issue of blending & selling potentially off-spec. gasoline in violation of Federal regulations.  How Zarco 66 and RFA hooked up to work this obvious political strategy rather than through arbitration or a contract lawyer is curious.

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on May 25, 2013

Thanks Geoff, I just have a few more questions.

Firstly, could you please point me to those latest papers which show a corn ethanol EROI in the 2:1 range?

If you have to venture a realistic estimate of what percentage of the US transport (net) energy could eventually be covered by ethanol, what would that be? 

Do you think that ethanol will ever be able to function without subsidies? Just the corn feedstock alone costs as much as a gallon of gasoline equivalent. 

Will it be in the US’s best interests to replace some fraction of cheaper imported energy with more expensive domestic energy?

What is your view on the effect that corn ethanol has on food prices in poorer nations? Many prominent commentators take this issue very seriously. 

What are your views on the indirect land use change impact on the GHG life-cycle? If this is accounted for, corn ethanol is much more greenhouse gas intensive than normal gasoline.

From the perspective that the effective corn ethanol carbon footprint could be more than that of regular gasoline, what are your views on the effects of climate change on the sustainability of US corn ethanol production?

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on May 25, 2013

Schalk, it is your turn to answer some questions.

Do you yet know the chemical difference between food sugar and food protein (etc.)? Where might we get complex food nutrients, such as a complete set of amino acids and nucleic acids? (They can’t be manufactured!!) Have you ever produced a balanced food diet from dirt to table for yourself for one year?

As a biofuel competitor of (fermented sugar + supplements) corn ethanol for 25 years, I think they overplay their energy role and completely underplay their essential food role. And I am impressed they can displace 20 percent domestic US gasoline supply (from waste) while dominating global food exports to feed an unthinkable 7 billion people to obesity.

As for the oil industry, they portray themselves competent to fracture and infuse the bedrock to extract a highly toxic chemical cocktail. In the next sentence they portray themselves utterly confused how to manage a pure chemical we can drink, dropped on their doorstep.

History seems to repeat itself. Stalin’s mobs decided it was unfair that farmers made food decisions so they took over; 20 million starved. I am still a competitor of the corn biofuel industry advocating forest management so you can breathe and have clean water. Couch commentary is a serious problem when trying to advance science.

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on May 25, 2013

Hi Rick,

Sure, I would gladly try to answer your questions. This might go a bit off topic, but I hope the moderators grant me a little leeway.

Yes, I know the difference between empty calorie foods and nutrient-dense foods. Although, to my understanding, protein deficiency is not the primary nutritional issue (micro-nutrients appear to be more important), all 8 essential amino acids can be gained from any of the following sources: meat, diary, fish, eggs, soy, hemp, quinoa, avocado, millet, spirulina or chlorella. In addition, any of the following combinations will also do the trick: whole grains + lentils, whole grains + nuts, whole grains + beans, beans + nuts/seeds or hummus + brown bread.

And no, of course I would not be able to supply myself with a complete diet. That is what our complex society is for (and why we have to do our best to preserve it). I advance the state of the art in CO2 capture in exchange for the right to walk into a supermarket and select any food I want. What I can do, however, is to educate myself about choosing the right foods. As a result of much research and trial-and-error implementation, I enjoy a varied diet with a sustainable carbon footprint which has already successfully protected me from all disease for more than four years.

But back to the topic at hand: If I understand you correctly, you are saying that corn ethanol actually promotes global food security. Could you please explain that to me in a little bit more detail?

I am also not clear on the message in your final paragraph. Could you clarify that a little further? 

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on May 26, 2013

Thanks for clarifying this John.

Kevon Martis's picture
Kevon Martis on May 26, 2013

Why does this sound like “I know you are but what am I?”

Geoff Cooper's picture
Geoff Cooper on May 27, 2013

Your EROI value is at odds with the latest GREET results (discussed in the Wang et al paper I cited), as well as Shapouri et al (2010). It is also just plain wrong to suggest that petroleum consumption is “very significant” in the corn ethanol process. Petroleum use for corn cultivation, corn transportation and ethanol transport is a very small part of the energy lifecycle. Only about 5 BTU of petroleum are needed for 100 BTU of ethanol; the rest of the energy comes primarily from natural gas. 

And how much of that tight oil and tar sands are moving by “more efficient pipeline”? Everyone knows the stuff coming out of the Bakken is all moving by rail. (Not to mention each new well needs 20-30 rail cars of bentonite, concrete, and other stuff just to get set up).

By the way, the import tariff on ethanol imports has been gone for 16 months now.


Geoff Cooper's picture
Geoff Cooper on May 27, 2013


thanks. I’ll be addressing many of these questions in future posts. Stay tuned!

Geoff Cooper's picture
Geoff Cooper on May 27, 2013


Wrong. You apparently didn’t read the letter. Nothing in their agreement prevented them from selling E15. When they wanted start selling E15, Phillips decided that Zarco should instead sell premium–a product they weren’t offering and didn’t want to offer.

zarco’s E15 absolutely met all state and federal requirements, including RVP. You are misleading people, and you don’t have all the facts on this situation.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on May 27, 2013

Mr. Cooper, I use to blend gasoline for a living.  The petroleum fraction requires a lower RVP to blend greater amounts of higher VP ethanol.  No, you are misleading the people here.


Do you have a copy of the Zarco/Phillips 66 franchise contract?  The facts are in the contract details.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on May 27, 2013

My energy balance values are based on a detailed analysis independent to the latest GREET model.  At the time (2009) the fossil fuels consumption was 0.78 MBtu/1.0 MBtu.  Detailed breakdown of the fossil fuels had petroleum in the 15% range and coal at about the same level.  Your stated 5% level is way off actual operations of average bio-refineries.  The balance is obviously natural gas.  The last update I evaluated a couple years ago reduced the total fossil fuels consumption to 0.74 MBtu/1.0 MBtu, petroleum/coal ratios about the same.  I have yet to evaluate this lower value in full detail; other priorities.  Sorry, I don’t have time to research the latest GREET update, but if it’s significantly different I would be very suspicious of their changes.

Bakken shale?, you are off subject again.  What does tight-oil in ND/MT have to do with Can. Oil sands or RFS2?

Yes, the tariff has been suspended.  My comment had to do with the obvious priority of corn/ethanol lobbies protecting their own special interests, not what is in the best interest of consumers; i.e. more efficient and lower carbon Brazilian sugarcane ethanol.


Suggest we continue this discussion outside TheEnergyCollective website.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on May 27, 2013

No Geoff, 

We don’t need to go outside this thread. John Rebutted your comment above, here it is in case you missed it:-


Like it?

May 26, 2013

John Miller says:

Mr. Cooper, I use to blend gasoline for a living.  The petroleum fraction requires a lower RVP to blend greater amounts of higher VP ethanol.  No, you are misleading the people here.


Do you have a copy of the Zarco/Phillips 66 franchise contract?  The facts are in the contract details.



Feel free to respond


Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on May 27, 2013

As usual, the refusal to engage a more comprehensive perspective provides a distorted “analysis.”

First, those that understand nutrition as a supermarket shopping list fail to appreciate the effort to put food on the supermarket shelf. Somewhere between dirt and shelf some organism makes some absolutely complex chemistry. Having done well at both advanced genetics and biochemistry when it required days of reading hundreds of pounds of thick books, seated in various libraries on campus, I encourage others to enlighten themselves just a little with some mouse clicks regarding just what this fermentation process does. This fermentation process grows yeast soup using sugar; in the current context, corn sugar. It is simply a massive scale-up of test tube genetics. Trust me, the science of genetics exists.

Given that we are making yeast soup for high value livestock feed, the foods industry does what they always do; they cook it. If you like raw food, your choice, but safe food is usually cooked. So all this EROEI nonsense is playing with oil industry variables since they don’t make edible food. And there is food production waste; bones, feathers, ethanol. Yes, the food industry does a good job reducing waste.

Personally, I would like to see a massive scaleback of corn production to a more sustainable level. The soil, water, fertilizer needs are not sustainable. Only fat people complain so much about food, anyway.

Geoff Cooper's picture
Geoff Cooper on May 27, 2013

I am fully aware of the limits on RVP and fully aware that E15 does not get the 1 psi waiver like E10. Zarco was so committed to E15 that is was shipping in the appropropriate gasoline blendstock to ensure the RVP of the finished product met the 9 psi standard. My point was, unless you have all the facts, you should not simply assume Zarco was doing something that would violate Federal regulations or their franchise agreements.

Geoff Cooper's picture
Geoff Cooper on May 27, 2013

There have been four new versions of GREET since 2009. Why would you be suspicious of changes? the GREET version you likely reviewed (probably 1.8b) was populated with agriculture and ethanol production data from the 1999-2003 timeframe. Obviously, many improvements have been made since then in both the agriculture phase and ethanol production phase, and the newer versions of GREET reflect that progress. Why shouldn’t we let the debate over ethanol be guided by the latest and most accurate data?

I brought up Bakken because you implied that ALL petroleum is being shipped today by “more efficient pipeline systems,” and thus it has a lower energy use footprint as far as transportation is concerned. That isn’t true. There is a lot of crude being moved by rail today.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on May 27, 2013

Mr. Cooper, I am aware the Argonne Lab continuously updates it’s GREET model (apparently part of some government contracts).  Unlike some individuals, I don’t assume the changes are accurate until they have been verified by someone I have confidence in.  Unfortunately, due to my past experience in dealing with the Argonne Lab, they showed no interest in correcting obvious large errors in their model for petroleum lifecycle balances.  This past lack of ‘peer review’ performance or interest normally makes me somewhat skeptical of their model and energy balance updates.

As you are probably well aware, the conventional corn ethanol lifecycle energy balance consumption of petroleum is overwhelmingly finished motor fuels (diesel/gaso.).  The impact of crude has no function-relationship in corn ethanol lifecycle balances other than cost.  The issue of transporting-railing ND/MT crude into centralized crude pipeline systems is once again totally independent to corn ethanol lifecycles.  I’m not sure why you jump around and keep changing subjects from ethanol to crude systems/infrastructure.  In the future I suggest we address each independent subject separately to avoid confusing others not experienced in these different areas.


I look forward to reviewing your next post on one of these subjects.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on May 27, 2013

If they truly obtained the proper blend stocks they likely came from someone other than Phillips 66.  This operation is probably well outside the normal Phillips 66 branded marketing business model.  Blending and routinely testing their (Zarco 66) gasoline blends to ensure they met all required E-15 specifications would truly make them unique within the Commercial Gasoline Retail Sector.  Since I have never experienced such flexibility in a branded franchise contract during my Refining-Commercial Supply experience, I still suspect this is basically a contract dispute issue between these two business parties.

Geoff Cooper's picture
Thank Geoff for the Post!
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