Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Why I Give PBS Documentary "The Ethanol Effect" a Grade of C-

Last week I provided a link for you to watch the new PBS ethanol documentary "The Ethanol Effect" online at Detroit Public Television. I wrote that when I finished watching it, I'd add my thoughts about the show which was made by David Biello, long time science writer for Scientific American and current overseer of science TED talks.

It's unfortunate that the show was constrained to one hour, which made it impossible to cover all that needed to be covered. It appears important segments on irrigation and air pollution were cut, judging by short video clips available online (included below). All things considered, I'm giving the show a grade of C-, considering its omissions and overall stance.

Note that in my points below, I have not included all of the issues that the show did cover. This list is mostly about the things it omitted. You must watch it to learn the rest.

1. My first observation was that for the casual, short attention span viewer, if someone only watched the first 12 minutes of the 54-minute show, they'd feel pretty warm and fuzzy about ethanol. Dave Biello kicked things off at a NASCAR racetrack with lots of ra ra from industry enthusiasts, interviewed Nebraska farmers in their fields, and told us how ethanol's use started with Henry Ford and was later touted by various U.S. presidents. NASCAR ethanol promoters are one way to start a documentary about ethanol, to set the stage, but that's not how I would have allocated the frontline spotlight.

2. The energy content of ethanol is 33 percent less than that of gasoline. This is information every consumer should know and it was glossed over in the film.

3. To the film's credit it interviewed farmers who had thousands of acres of land. Ethanol policy and the corn acreage demanded by this policy begets larger farms, and investor owned farms/farmland. This contributes to a depopulation of our rural communities and areas, things the film perhaps implied to the well-informed, but lacked saying for those uninformed.

4. While ethanol was given credit as a necessary octane booster, replacing MTBE, it didn't mention that there are other better choices for octane boosters, such as the bioethers. (See my Yale e360 Interview for more on that.)

5. In the segment which covered the politics of ethanol, I'd like to have seen mention of choosing Tom Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture. Because Iowa produces far more ethanol than any other state (see chart below), naming a Secretary of Agriculture who was previously an Iowa politician supplies the optimal conditions for ethanol to be the recipient of special political favors. Vilsack has indeed been handing out favors during his eight years in office.... blender pumps, facility grants, research monies, export trade missions, positive public relations, exploration of markets in our military, and (perhaps-assumed) important influential power over at the EPA.

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Fuel Ethanol Plant Production Capacity

6. I thought that the show was weak in naming environmental consequences of today's level of ethanol production. For wildlife, the documentary only mentioned bees and ducks, when there are so many other species that have been impinged upon including pollinators, songbirds, amphibians, fireflies, and Monarchs. It's all about the lack of habitat when a policy such as this rewards and encourages fencerow to fencerow industrial farming.

7. The show mentioned Iowa's water pollution issues as well as Lake Erie and the Gulf Dead Zone, but didn't discuss ground water contamination of individual drinking wells throughout the Great Plains, and the many small towns that have become affected, bearing huge monetary costs plus real life human hardships from health problems and the inconvenience of not being able to use local well water.

8. Any agronomist will tell you that soil is our most precious resource, and the show didn't mention the frightening amount of soil being lost from all-out corn and soy production. This was also lacking in the discussion of cellulosic ethanol production which uses corn stover. The challenges of producing cellulosic ethanol using corn stover were presented, but there was no mention of taking so much biomass from the ground without returning it.

9. Corn is one of the most expensive crops to grow because it requires expensive inputs. That means that the Big Ag Corporations benefit richly from Washington's RFS/ethanol policy. Cargill and ADM own some of the largest of the ethanol plants. Ethanol policy also sends money straight to the seed companies, fertilizer companies, equipment makers, irrigation suppliers, and the banking industry, to name a few. Just this week, John Deere reported that it supports the EPA raising the amount of ethanol blended into gasoline in 2017. Biello's show presented the policy as if the local farmer and rural communities are the beneficiaries. Biello also fell for the line that the ethanol industry lobbyists always try to distract us with, that it is "poor us against big oil" instead of looking at who the real corporate winners are.

10. Ethanol production causes air pollution, too. While the show gave time to ethanol's entry as a replacement of formerly used additive MTBE, it appears that a segment on ethanol causing air pollution was cut from the show because I found this short video (see below) which was not included in the film. There is an ethanol plant in Minnesota which has been a repeat offender air-polluter that has been strapped with fines, and we must question how well all of the other plants throughout the remote rural corn belt sites are being monitored. Biello did remind us that some of the plants are coal-fired.

11. In 2014, a São Paulo study revealed that ethanol causes a significant increase in ozone air pollution. This story is a looming catastrophe for ethanol, but to date it hasn't received enough attention. Urban areas in the U.S. which are known to have serious ozone pollution problems are being forced to burn ethanol for transportation. Ozone pollution causes serious health problems and will harm well-intentioned bicyclists, runners, walkers, and other outdoor enthusiasts. Just this week, Yale Environment 360 published a must-read report on our serious ozone pollution problem. The ethanol-ozone pollution topic needs to be confronted.

Interestingly, I found an April 2007 Scientific American article by David Biello titled, "Want to Reduce Air Pollution? Don't Rely on Ethanol Necessarily; Fueling the automobile fleet primarily with ethanol rather than gasoline might increase air pollution, a new study finds" from which I excerpted the following quote.
...burning ethanol adds 22 percent more hydrocarbons to the atmosphere than does burning gasoline and this would lead to a nearly two parts per billion increase in tropospheric ozone. This surface ozone, which has been linked to inflamed lungs, impaired immune systems and heart disease by prior research, would in turn lead to a 4 percent increase in the number of ground level ozone-related deaths, or roughly 200 extra deaths a year.
Yet, Biello never mentioned ozone air pollution in his documentary.

12. There needs to be a regulation that prohibits the production of ethanol from corn that's been produced using aquifer irrigation. 1) the energy return doesn't math out, and, 2) future water security is more important than short term profits by producing additional bushels of corn today. Apparently Biello filmed, but cut a segment from this documentary regarding Ogallala aquifer depletion in Kansas (see below).

13. If I were to produce a show on this subject, I would have included the amount of soybeans being grown for biodiesel production, too. After all, this is part of the RFS, and it is subsidized by taxpayers at a dollar for every gallon produced, it is political, and it is contributing to all of the environmental issues related to corn for ethanol in the corn belt. In 2015, we used the oil from 441 million soybean bushels to manufacture biodiesel. This is 11 percent of our soybean crop on close to 9 million acres of farmland. It is an important part of the RFS story.

14. I liked how Biello gave adequate time towards the end of the show to demonstrate the stealth taxpayer money that continues to pay for infrastructure expenses, especially blender pumps that encourage people to buy higher blends of ethanol. The film showed a station in Florida offering the higher blends, far from the corn belt. Infrastructure is everything when it comes to transportation and fuels, and ethanol infrastructure requirements have been enormous, but are now embedded in the system, thank you taxpayer. Today, it is obvious that the industry wishes that E15, instead of E10, would be sold at the pump - to raise today's low return for growing corn. (He might have mentioned that E85 is defined as 51%-83% ethanol, not 85%, and why, too.)

More importantly, there was a related subject that Biello didn't include that he should have. Today, the industry is pegging hopes upon exporting more ethanol to far reaching corners of the world to create more demand for the product. This, in the mind of an environmentalist, creates a huge moral/ethical question and is far from the national security issue that ethanol was first touted as. Ethanol industry leaders, including Tom Vilsack, conduct frequent trade missions to sell ethanol and its byproduct to foreign nations.

15. I agree with Biello's conclusion that the answer lies in more efficient engines, smaller vehicles, solar for battery powered electric vehicles, and mass transit, rather than more ethanol. That was an important point to make in the show.

But a better ending would have been to look at the double standard in which the media views "meat" and "ethanol". On the one hand we are told by media that we should not eat meat because it harms the planet and requires too many farmland acres. On the other hand, ethanol, we are told, is a trade off, a policy which has its pluses and its minuses. That's what "The Ethanol Effect" told us.

Instead, if we converted the acreage devoted to producing corn for ethanol and soybeans for biodiesel to grasslands or regenerative farming practices, we'd have have healthy meat, feed, soils, water, and farmland. At the same time, we'd be reducing greenhouse emissions, improving air quality, and preserving our soils, biodiversity, and wildlife.

There is a better way forward.

That is how I would have ended the show.

Also recommended, "The Environmental Destruction in the Corn Belt During the Obama-Vilsack Tenure".


  1. Excellent post, K.

    I'd say maybe Biello would like to see this ?

    1. Thanks. This is the internet, so he's probably already seen it. He could only present so much in one hour. Some would say it was a good show. Supposedly his focus was politics, and he did suggest that this is a political policy all the way.

  2. On 10/24, David Biello has graciously tweeted out this link saying "thanks for the review" after which we shared some back and forth. The Society of Environmental Journalists also tweeted out the piece, so I am both pleased and humbled by their endorsement.