... or cornball critics

by Lawrence Solomon

Two decades ago, David Pimentel released a startling study for the United States Department of Energy showing that making ethanol consumes far more energy than the ethanol contains, The agency — to confirm his findings — had 26 of its top scientists review his study before its release, but that didn't satisfy Dr. Pimentel's critics. The United States Department of Agriculture, food giant Archer-Daniel-Midlands and others in the corn lobby vilified him, and congressmen from corn states demanded that the federal government's watchdog, the General Accounting Office, thoroughly investigate his findings. The GAO spent 20 times as much money reviewing Dr. Pimentel's work as Dr. Pimentel's own team did in creating the original study. After dissecting his methodology and scrutinizing every figure, the GAO, too, endorsed Dr. Pimentel's findings.

Two decades later, the corn and ethanol lobby is still at it. The critics that appear elsewhere on this page state that Dr. Pimentel, apart from being dead wrong, is biased, grossly outdated, incompetent, and devoid of credibility in the scientific community. Instead of putting our trust in this sham of a scientist — just about the only person in the universe who seems to find ethanol lacking, they imply — believe the bushel of counterstudies produced by the real experts.

The critics protest too much and their studies, like many things available by the bushel, aren't worth that much. The critics fault Dr. Pimentel's methodology while they ignore data — such as corn yields from less productive states — that doesn't serve their interests. The critics fault him for using out-of-date data in his recent study, which relied primarily on year 2000 data, while the studies his critics cite use primarily older data — a commonly cited Department of Agriculture study, for example, uses 1990 to 1993 data. The critics accuse Dr. Pimentel of having a vested interest in his recent criticisms of ethanol, when the results of his research, which was funded by the College of Agriculture at Cornell University, came as a blow to the many pro-ethanol interests associated with agricultural colleges. Meanwhile, the ethanol studies that refute Dr. Pimentel's findings have been conducted by government departments, farm interests and ethanol industries, all of which have a vested interest in converting corn to ethanol. None of their studies count all the energy costs associated with ethanol, as Dr. Pimentel has.

Many of the ethanol industry's consultants, scientists and other experts are doubtless competent, as are the government scientists that have taken runs at Dr. Pimentel's findings. The Oxford, MIT and Cornell-educated Dr. Pimentel, however, is in another league. He produced his initial study as chairman of the Gasohol Study Group, a task force convened by the Reagan Administration in 1980 to investigate the efficiency of ethanol production. Formerly a White House advisor to president Nixon, he helped establish the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Dr. Pimentel, far from being a widely discredited scientist, has been chairman of the Environmental Studies Board in the National Academy of Sciences, he has served on 12 of their distinguished panels, and he is internationally renowned as one of the best in his field. Last October, his ethanol findings were published in the 2001 edition of the Encyclopedia for Physical Sciences and Technology, a peer-reviewed publication. The criticisms from his opponents are as outrageous as they are self-serving.

Dr. Pimentel's critics also tout ethanol's benefits in combatting air pollution. While ethanol does have some beneficial attributes — it replaces potentially harmful agents such as MMT and MTBE, and reduces carbon monoxide emissions — ethanol's environmental drawbacks may entirely counter the benefits. Ethanol produces suspected carcinogens such as aldehydes and just as many nitrous oxides as its competitors. Last week, in a settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency for violations of the Clean Air Act, 12 ethanol plants agreed to pay fines and install devices called thermal oxidizers to reduce emissions. Ironically, the energy these oxidizers will burn will make ethanol an even greater energy glutton, and an even greater economic boondoggle.

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Wednesday, October 09, 2002

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute, a division of Energy Probe Research Foundation. E-mail: LawrenceSolomon@nextcity.com

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