The Fuel on the Hill — The Corn Supremacy

I have an article in Salon on the insanity that is America’s ethanol policy. The new energy bill sets this country on a path to finish the assault on the world food supply begun by the (even lamer) 2005 energy bill. As I explain, our ethanol policy does not help fight global warming, but it does threaten food supplies:

In just the past two years, food prices have jumped 75 percent in real terms…. The Economist points out the amazing statistic that “the demands of America’s ethanol program alone account for over half the world’s unmet need for cereals.”

By law (the 2005 energy bill) we are going to increase corn ethanol production at least 50% over the next few years. And the new energy bill will probably require corn ethanol to triple from current levels!! But current levels are already bringing havoc down on the global food market.


The International Herald Tribune reported Monday:

In an “unforeseen and unprecedented” shift, the world food supply is dwindling rapidly and food prices are soaring to historic levels, the top food and agriculture official of the United Nations warned Monday.

The changes created “a very serious risk that fewer people will be able to get food,” particularly in the developing world, said Jacques Diouf, head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

Now here is where everything gets as frighteningly ironic as a Twilight Zone episode. The cause of this catastrophe:

Diouf blamed a confluence of recent supply and demand factors for the crisis, and he predicted that those factors were here to stay. On the supply side, these include the early effects of global warming, which has decreased crop yields in some crucial places, and a shift away from farming for human consumption toward crops for biofuels and cattle feed. Demand for grain is increasing with the world population, and more is diverted to feed cattle as the population of upwardly mobile meat-eaters grows.

Yes, two of the main drivers of high fuel prices are global warming and America’s biofuels policy, which was created in part as an effort to fight global warming (though it doesn’t as I explain in the Salon article).

You can’t make this stuff up — and yet the President and Congress keep making it up as they go, oblivious to our impact on the world and the planet.

31 Responses to The Fuel on the Hill — The Corn Supremacy

  1. Albert says:

    The other hidden danger here is that they are strengthening the constituency that will fight to insure that the government continues and expands its ethanol supports no matter what else happens.

  2. Tim Bousquet says:

    Joe, do you have any sense of the energy numbers behind ethanol from fuel? With all the natural gas-based fertilizer used to grow corn, aren’t we in effect just replacing oil with natural gas, and at the same time switching our energy dependency from dangerous Middle Eastern states to dangerous Russia?

  3. Ron says:

    I tried to warn you a long time ago that this propaganda campaign of yours and the political solutions would have unforeseen negative consequences.

    I say ‘unforeseen’, but I saw it coming ….

    Nobody listens to the troll. Propaganda is so much sexier.

  4. …my wife brought in two maps to her class with this instruction: transpose the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico off the southern California coast to compare to known geography.

    When I read about ethanol, all I can see is more expansive dead zones.

    It is to weep.

  5. Joe says:

    What propaganda campaign of mine are you talking about? I’ve never been in favor of these levels of corn ethanol. This is mostly Bush’s doing, with bipartisan support, though it really started with the 2005 energy bill, a productive of conservatives, mostly.

  6. John Fleck says:

    Joe –

    I very much liked the Salon piece, but I have a question.

    On the issue of net greenhouse gas emissions savings (cost) of corn-based ethanol, you cite Crutzen’s work, which is the most extreme example in a very unsettled field. As you’re no doubt aware, a more thorough and nuanced discussion of the literature on this, leads to roughly the same conclusion – little if any greenhouse gas savings associated with ethanol. But you’ve picked the outlier, and an outlier that hasn’t even been published yet in the peer-reviewed literature. (At least, it hadn’t as of earlier this month – and at least some of the reviewers raised questions about whether Crutzen’s method overstated the N2O numbers, which was critical for generating the number you quote.)

    How do you justify the cherry-pick, and how can I be comfortable that you’re not doing the same thing in areas where I’m not familiar with the literature and have to merely take your word for it?

  7. john says:

    LOL? Hmmm. How profound. Well, I guess you showed us.

    Unfortunately for your case, the downsides were forecasted by nearly everyone, and they do not pertain generally to climate solutions.

    Most enviros have warned about the downsides of ethanol all along.

    Beyond the food thing, it’s never been much of an energy solution, it’s barely better than breakeven on carbon, and it has some nasty air emissions in its own right.

    So, lumping the downsides of ethanol into some mythical “propaganda campaign” with “downsides” only you foresaw smacks of revisionist history. More to the point, the downsides of ethanol do not transfer to the many viable solutions this site and others have advocated.

    Are there real unforseen consequences out there we haven’t thought about with regard to reducing carbon emissions? Undoubtedly. But it’s an open and shut case that they don’t compare with the downsides of not addressing climate change, so I’m not sure exactly what your point is.

    And for the record, most people never saw climate mitigation as the primary pitch for ethanol. It has has been largely centered on energy independence, and it was championed by conservatives as well as some (but not all) climate folks.

  8. Ron says:

    My point is that I have been railing against the dishonest propaganda and proposals for political fixes for the ‘problem’ of global warming all along.

    I’ve wondered aloud, again and again, why the lies and disinformation were necessary if the glowarmers had the science so solidly on their side.

    I have repeatedly warned that government ‘fixes’ almost always go wrong, anyway. It’s the nature of the beast.

    I’ve tried to appeal to morality, by pointing out that taxation is really nothing more than a form of robbery; and to use that plunder for your own purposes, or to make proposals for even higher taxes, is just plain wrong.

    I’ve wondered aloud why you disregard the idea of private sector fixes, if most of the technology needed already exists, as you say. Why screw it up by filtering your efforts through all those layers of government?

    And now we have a really crappy ‘climate bill’ signed into law that’s only going to hurt the economy and further reduce our ability to deal with this ‘coming catastrophe’ you keep talking about.

    You can’t blame it all on Bush. You glowarmers made this a political issue with your propaganda campaign. And this is the kind of ‘fix’ you can expect.

    LOL (ironically) – Because after all your agitation and propaganda, you finally got some action out of Bush, but nobody is happy (except for a few big corporations and the global government/de-population folks).

  9. David B. Benson says:

    Ethanol addresses global warming issues. Provided it is made from something sensible such as sugar cane.

    Ethanol-from-corn is a gov’mint boondoggle to take money from your pocket and put it in the hands of corn farmers (and some others).

  10. David B. Benson says:

    For once I more-or-less agree with Ron.

  11. Joe says:

    David: Who knew you were a closet libertarian? Taxation = robbery? You can’t get more anti-government than that.

    Ron: The energy bill is NOT a climate bill. It has NOTHING whatsoever to do with global warming and in no way was motivated by it. Gimme a break. It is at best an energy security bill. The fuel economy stuff is quite good, as is the efficiency stuff, but the ethanol provisions aren’t good.

    We are a fabulously wealthy country thanks to our government and the taxes that pay for it. Should we ever get serious about global warming, it will not undermine our wealth at all, but would preserve the health and well-being of the next 50 generations.

  12. Joe says:


    Reasonable question. As you say, “a more thorough and nuanced discussion of the literature on this, leads to roughly the same conclusion – little if any greenhouse gas savings associated with ethanol.” But that’s what I meant by the statement: “Most life-cycle analyses show that corn ethanol has little or no net greenhouse gas benefit compared with gasoline because so much energy is consumed to grow and process the corn.”

    Crutzen is merely a very recent analysis by a very credible source (not many Nobel laureates do life-cycle analysis) that those earlier analyses were all underestimating the increase in N20. I probably should not have used the word “found” but rather “suggested.”

    I don’t view my several sentences on this issue “cherry-picking.” I presented the basic conclusion of the vast majority of studies, and then added some new info that seemed credible to me. If I had dropped the Crutzen paragraph, it wouldn’t have changed the rest of the piece at all. Still, I like to share new studies that I find credible with readers.

  13. Ron says:

    Taxation = robbery? You can’t get more anti-government than that.

    To paraphrase the emminently lucid Claire Wolfe, ‘It’s too late to work within the system, but still too early to just shoot the bastards’.

    There’s nothing wrong with a little old-fashioned American anti-government sentiment. It’s what keeps this country great. And like I’ve pointed out before, government is just the old protection racket, made bigger and more powerful. It doesn’t matter if you pay taxes or pay Vinnie and Jake when they show up at the back door. It’s the same thing.

    The energy bill is NOT a climate bill. It has NOTHING whatsoever to do with global warming and in no way was motivated by it. Gimme a break.

    You can call it anything you like, but the point is that it wasn’t driven by science. It was driven by politics. Politics gets you more politics.

  14. Joe says:

    Honestly, Ron. You’d be happier in Russia, I think, where the government really is a thugocracy. Not that the Bush Administration hasn’t violated virtually every law on the books….

    Somehow we became the richest most powerful country in the world. Guess it had nothing to do with our government, tho. Just dumb luck, I guess.

  15. Ron says:

    You see me as some sort of libertarian nut, so you figure I’d be happier in Russia? You funny guy.

    But honestly Joe, can you at least explain why the disinformation and lies are necessary to the cause, if the science is so solid?

  16. Ron’s question, “an you at least explain why the disinformation and lies are necessary to the cause, if the science is so solid?”, if it is to be taken seriously, betrays a peculiar view of the world, wherein everyone who disagrees with Ron must agree with each other and share a consistent and defensible worldview.

    I am sure that I disagree with Ron, and I am sure I disagree with other people who disagree with Ron. Ron is asking the likes of me to defend everybody who disagrees with Ron about climate change, I guess, but that doesn’t make any sense to me. There simply isn’t anyone giving me marching orders.

    People who understand the science know that the IPCC is a legitimate representation of the state of the science, if anything biased toward understatement. That doesn’t obligate us to agree about anything else. It’s completely bizarre to be asked to defend the opinions of some tightly disciplined movement that doesn’t actually exist.

  17. John Mashey says:

    [I grew up on a (small) farm, sympathize with farmers, but also think first-world farm policies have had many bad effects, and it’s not instantly clear that the ethanol ones are a lot worse (admittedly a low bar, carefully worded.)

    1) Consider subsidized grains likle corn:
    a) Use water, fertilizer (from natural gas), fuel to get to railroad, fuel to run trains.

    b) IF for livestock, fuel to get to livestock.

    c) If for human food, process into things like high-fructose corn syrup, or cereal, or whatever; fuel to transport to customer.

    d) Like c), but exported elsewhere, in some cases depressing agriculture in developing countries, and getting there via bulk in ships [more fuel].

    e) For ethanol, in which case, use fuel to get to get to processing plant, and fuel to transport the ethanol wherever.

    For a moment, assume some total level of corn [which means 1a is constant].
    What’s an optimal level of usage split between animal food, human food, and fuel?

    In 2010?
    In 2070(?) when there’s no more easy oil and gas left, and no natural gas.

    I can’t say that I’d be overly sorry to have less high-fructose corn syrup around, and except for rare emergencies, it makes little sense to me to export subsidized grain (burning petroleum in ships to do so) to developing countries where it has often damaged local agriculture anyway. [Some people appear to simultaneously argue for “eat-local” and “we can’t do ethanol because the world will starve”, which I don’t understand.”

    If wouldn’t bother me if livestock were mostly range-fed (and hence, less meat), but not everyone would agree. Of course, if there’s real pressure on land for food, there’s some prime land growing tobacco (and fuel burned to dry it, which is often gotten in developing countries via cutting trees.)

    2) In doing long-term planning, it’s always seemed to be to be better to try to analyze alternate end-goals, and THEN try to figure out how to get there from here, rather than starting with the current awkward state and patching. That way, each decision has a chance of being evaluated in the context of whether or not it helps along a desired path.

    So, maybe Joe and the other experts here can tell me some plausible end-goals to get to and whether or not biofuels are part of them.

    I propose the following as a possible end-goal, say for about 2070 (?)

    ? We’ve kept unsequestered coal under control, and haven’t gone crazy with tar sands, oil shale or coal-based synfuels. [we hope]

    * there is no cheap oil or natural gas left
    ==> I’m, not sure what happens to nitrogen-based fertilizers

    * We are mostly using electric cars, smaller trucks, and (small-medium) tractors.

    * We have more railroads, and they’re mostly electrified.

    * We are adequately supplied with electrical power (efficiency efforts, lots of renewables, (nuclear maybe)).

    ? No one is shipping bulk-grain by ocean. that is surely gone at that point.

    a) Can we do entirely without fuel?

    (medium/long-distance trucking, shipping, some other areas, seem difficult; air travel seems really difficult.)

    b) If not, what’s the mix of fuel? and how do we get there? What’s the right mix of research versus deployment?

    Cellulosic ethanol (like from miscanthus, which at least doesn’t take much water or fertilizer)? or some related *nol?

    Biodiesel, maybe from algae?

    Hydrogen (I’ve read Joe’s writings on that)

    Anyway, I understand the complaints about the subsides and short-term effects, but it would help me to understand a long-term vision of something that might be sustainable long-term, and long-term, I’m not convinced that price of corn in the US is going to matter quite so much elsewhere, in particular, if there’s no way to get crops to market, because there’s no fuel, it doesn’t make sense to grow them and let them rot.

  18. Ron says:


    I enjoyed the dance, but I was asking Joe to defend the use of disinformation and lies to further the cause of glowarming. Especially since it seems to be hurting, rather than helping, the cause.

    A real head-scratcher, huh?

  19. Joe says:

    Please identify the specific “disinformation and lies” you keep referring too. You keep repeating the phrase as if everyone knows what you are talking about, but in fact no one does (because it doesn’t exist). Is the IPCC report disinformation and lies? Is the scientific literature? Please be specific, or stop using the phrase.

  20. john says:


    So far you’ve called the best — and a very conservative — consensus by the world’s climate scientists “propaganda” and you’ve accused anyone referencing their findings of being part of a “misinformation campaign” based on lies. You’ve compounded these particularly bizzarre statements by citing some “cause,” to which everyone belongs to except you and a few chosen ones, presumably.

    What do you think? That all these scientists are sitting around concocting lies and fabrications as part of some plot? And what would that plot be, and what would its point be? Your posts are getting a bit out there, Ron.

    I’ve engaged in discussions with you because I presumed you were part of the reality-based community and that sooner or later, the perponderance of evidence would begin to have SOME small influence on what you believe. I see now I was wrong — you are immune to facts, impervious to reason, and desperate to hold onto your preconceived notions, evidence be damned.

    It’s almost as if you were part of some disinformation campaign, intent on spreading propaganda.

  21. Ron says:

    You sound tired, Joe. Are you getting enough sleep lately?

    Come on, Joe, we have already argued about and hashed out many of the statements made by Al Gore and others – from sinking Pacific islands, to so-called endangered polar bears, dishonestly tweaked data, and misleading statements. Do we have to argue them all again? And I don’t think anybody seriously disputes that Al Gore and many of the glowarming bloggers have gotten way off the science sometimes with ‘sky-is-falling’ rhetoric. Heck, Gore won an Oscar and a Nobel for his propaganda campaign! [Crossword question: “influencing public opinion”] And his film and speeches are peppered with misleading statements and outright lies. And he’s setting the tone for the movement.

    Please identify the specific “disinformation and lies” you keep referring too. You keep repeating the phrase as if everyone knows what you are talking about, but in fact no one does (because it doesn’t exist).

    Let’s be serious, Joe. Are you defending every statement of Gore’s and the propaganda machine?

    Look, I’m not necessarily lumping you in with those ‘glowarming bloggers’ I referred to above. You are one of the better sorts. You are less alarmist than some, and have real expertise in green technologies. I just don’t understand why you condone and sometimes repeat the disinformation, and why you aren’t more for private sector efforts when you can see as clearly as anybody else that government fixes don’t work.

  22. john says:

    Oh, and one other thing, with regard to the string on government as the root of all evil — big bad gub’mint has been a key player in the US’s fabulously successful wealth generation, and more recently, it has become our only hope of avoiding catastophic warming.

    Let’s look at some facts.

    Regulations have made our security markets transparent, fair, and successful. Doubt that? Then put your money in Argentina or Zaire, I understand you can get better than a 250% return there at the moment.

    And if you look at the leading economic sectors — computers and information systems, pharmaceuticals, energy, aerospace, agriculture, bio-tech, defense, etc. etc. etc. government R&D and fiscal policies have been instrumental in their success, and they have been highly regulated.

    Think the free market provides all good things by pure serendipity?

    Well, then take a look at what happened in CA when they deregulated the energy industry — the free market delivered blackouts and skyrocketting price increases simultaneously. On the other hand, the big bad Gub’mint regulated an energy system that for 100 years brought us the cheapest, most reliable energy in the world. Hmmm. Or look what’s happened when restrictions for advertising were lifted from the pharmaceutical industry — they now spend more on advertsing than R&D and what they spend in R&D is largely devotd to knock off drugs for SSRI’s ED and other big sllers. Real breakthroughs are coming from NIH (that would be big Gibmint).

    And you’re reading this because DARPA — a government agency — invented the Internet — and yes, Al Gore was instrumental in getting it established.

    The fact is, conservatism and modern libertarianism are fueled by two powerful myths, which upon examination, have no basis in fact: 1) The Myth of the Magic Markets and their abiltiy to deliver all good things by pure serendipity, and 2) the Myth of the Bumbling Bureaucrats, their utter incompetence, and the belief that regualtion is bad.

    Need another example? The current meltdown in liquidity is a function of two failures to regulate 1) The Fed failed to regulate the mortgage markets; and 2) the SEC failed the regulate hedge funds and one failure of the market 1) the market held that the securitization of sub-primes and secondary mortgages spread risks in a way that assured no one was over-exposed. Wrong.

    One of the curious phenomena conservatives and libertarians engage in each year is throwing a half a trillion dollars or more at the Defense Department — the only sector of our economy entirely run by government — after spending the entire year telling us government is useless and can’t do anything right. Huh?

    And yes, we’ve often regulated stupidly, but that doesn’t mean that it’s stupid to regulate.

    As Sterns notes, climate change is the biggest market failure of all time. Waiting for the magic market to solve it without serious, sustained government regulation and R&D is tantamount to waiting for the tooth fairy.

    Regulations and government programs are not an impediment to economic growth, they are pre-requisites for it. More recently, they’ve become necessary to maintaining civilization as we know it.

  23. john says:


    Wow. You’re right. Joe has engaged you on such issues as endangered polar bears, tweaked data, and alarmist statements. And in each case, he dispatched your criticisms convincingly, thoroughly, and diplomatically. I, being less kind, would say he’s shredded your objections and protestations with skill and precision, exposing them as little more than iconoclastic bombasts.

    And yet, here you go again, raising them as if they weren’t thoroughly discredited. Well, thank you for proving that my previous observation about the reality based community was spot on. I was feeling bad about it, becuse Joe has been chiding me for my somewhat strident tone. But I see now, it hasn’t made a dent.

  24. Joe says:

    Ron — I can’t argue with someone who refuses to provide specifics and weblinks. I believe I have debunked all of the things you mention — certainly polar bears are headed toward a very sharp decline if not outright extinction (they’ll probably live on in zoos), as I have detailed many times.

    I challenge you to give 3 weblinks to specific “disinformation and lies” you keep referring to. And please don’t cite instances I (or Realclimate) have already debunked. If you can’t or won’t, then I’m not going to let you keep slandering the entire scientific community.

    I have a 10-month old, but am getting enough sleep, thank you.

  25. Ronald says:

    What is it that the True Believer really has to do?

    It’s like what Lee Harvey Oswald had to do. His politics of Marxism didn’t work out for him so well. He wasn’t getting anywhere with anything else he tried to do. So he had to do the only thing left to him which was to be a pest. If someone is a pest, that is the thing a person can be 100 percent of.

    How someone can be as wrong as you in your posts and still keep driving on and not stopping to contemplate is not someone who wants to understand the world and think things out, but someone who, as the True Believer, has to fight on that much harder.

    You don’t know the science of climatology. You should (re)study it and the dangers. And not from those who also don’t understand climatology, but from those that do.

    The bill that Pres. Bush signed was not about global warming, but about ‘america is addicted to oil’ and ‘oil independence.’

    That you believe all government is bad when there are so many clear examples of that not being true.

    But what makes our country so great is that even if you don’t know what makes our country so great it still mostly protects your right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness with tax payers money.

  26. Ron says:


    I doubt I can find 3 links to criticisms you haven’t already heard, so I don’t really see any point in going there.

    I guess the bottom line is that you are going to defend every statement that Gore and the propaganda machine has made. That’s fine; as I’ve also pointed out before, your present career depends on the hype, so I guess I shouldn’t expect anything different. I sometimes forget you’re at work right now. Feel free to say you’ve won, if it makes your holiday more merry.


    I never said all government is ‘bad’. I just said, quite succinctly I think, what government is.

    And you seem to be unclear on the basic tenets of libertarianism. The cornerstones are the sanctity of individual rights and the principle that says initiating force is always wrong. A government could be run that way, even if we haven’t seen one yet – but it would certainly look a lot different from what we have today.

    The point about your government fixes is simply that they ignore individual rights and initiate force against people, by treating the ‘taxpayers’ as cattle to be milked for the ‘common good’. It’s not only morally wrong, but it’s bad business.

    But you guys stick to your beliefs and keep on keeping on with the propaganda and maybe the next big climate bill that’s coming will be more to your liking, and who knows? Maybe it won’t have any bad consequences for the economy after all, just as you say.

  27. Joe says:

    Ron, I’ll take that to mean you’re conceding my point. BTW, I’m still waiting for the first climate bill. I suspect I’ll like most of it.

  28. Ron says:

    Good luck with that.

  29. Paul K says:

    This is a lot of blah blah. Is there any commenter here who thinks the heavy commitment of taxpayer funded grants, rebates and subsidies accorded to corn based ethanol is a good thing? I know that Joe is no fan. The energy bill is not a climate bill. Ethanol is a matter solely of national security via energy independence. Affordable electric vehicles will make it obsolete. Oh, for a flux capacitor.
    John Mashey wrote: “In doing long-term planning, it’s always seemed to be to be better to try to analyze alternate end-goals, and THEN try to figure out how to get there from here, rather than starting with the current awkward state and patching. That way, each decision has a chance of being evaluated in the context of whether or not it helps along a desired path.” That is very well put. As to plausible end-goals, how are these for 2050? 80% of domestic automotive hybrid, EV or the equivalent.
    70% of electrical power non carbon generated
    70% of homes heated carbon free

  30. CiteYourSiteStuffPlz says:

    I’m trying to see where you’ve given credit to the corn cartoon’s creator, owner of the site, a great cartoonist.