Sunday, October 29, 2006

Dallas Observer article full of crap

You may recall that I like to read the Dallas Observer, our alternative newspaper for the area, for its often revealing and insightful articles on local issues that otherwise would never get covered. Some examples of times we've talked about and Observer article are here, here, and here. Of course that's not to say I'm an uncritical fan. I had a real problem with the article by Andrea Grimes about the adoption of a Cherokee child by non-Indian parents. Not the adoption, mind you, just the views espoused in the article.

But I never expected this utter travesty of journalism from the Dallas Observer. "Corndoggle" is the cover story of the latest issue, and it is a sad day when my favorite scandal rag turns into a free advertisement for big oil.

The subject of the article is that there are drawbacks, some significant, with the current generation of technology that produces corn-based ethanol (soy-based bio-diesel is also touched upon). That alone isn't what pisses me off. I'll be the first to tell you that this technology is no magic bullet: the problem is our level of energy consumption, which no method of production in the world can solve. The US is using so much energy (and still growing), that we use oil by the tens of millions of barrels a day! It's just not sustainable. But ethanol won't change how much energy we consume, it'll only change where we get it from. My argument has always been that we need to reduce the amount of energy we use first and then find environmentally friendly solutions to problem. Although I'd be happy if we did both at the same time.

I do suggest you read the article for yourself. I'm not going to rebut it point by point. My problem is that it is generally misleading. Let me raise two over-arching points in a general rebuttal. This writer repeatedly mentions that bio-fuels would not be profitable minus government subsidies. I just want to mention that oil gets subsidies as well, and have you seen their profits lately? From the Union of Concerned Scientists website:

Government directly subsidizes oil consumption through preferential treatment in tax codes. A multitude of federal corporate income tax credits and deductions results in an effective income tax rate of 11% for the oil industry, compared to the non-oil industry average of 18%. If the oil industry paid the industrywide average tax rate (including oil) of 17%, they would have paid an additional $2.0 billion in 1991. Our results are consistent with a report by the Alliance to Save Energy that estimated the benefits of individual federal corporate income tax provisions. Their results showed that in 1989 preferential treatment yielded $1.8 billion to $4.6 billion in individual income tax benefits to the oil industry (Koplow, 1993).

Hardly seems like fair comparison to me to talk about the unsubsidized cost of ethanol vs. the subsidized cost of oil. Oh, by the way, what do you want to bet that we won't be fighting any wars in the Midwest over corn like we're fighting a war in the Middle East for oil? And what do you think about the cost of oil if you add that in? Do you like the price now?

Here's the other problem I have in general with the article: the writer talks about the pollution from biofuels as if it could be equal to gasoline. Of course, that's only in specific circumstances, not in all cases, and it doesn't count the pollution involved in oil drilling and refinement. But of course, the writer is either too stupid or too biased to make a fair comparison.

There is something in this article that makes me so mad I just want to burn a copy of the Observer. It's the fact that this writer, this buffoon, includes quotes from right-wing advocacy groups and calls them "think-tanks" without disclosing who they are and what they do (and where they get their money from). Namely, the National Center for Policy Analysis and the American Enterprise Institute. Let's see what the People for the American Way have to say about them.

National Center for Policy Analysis

12655 North Central Expressway, Suite 720
Dallas, TX 75243-1739

Established: 1983
President/Executive Director: John C. Goodman
Finances: $5,237,217 (total expenditures in 2001)
Employees: 22
Affiliations: NCPA is a member of the State Policy Network, a network of national and local right-wing think tanks, and of, a right-wing internet portal created by the Heritage Foundation.
Publications: NCPA sponsors two of its own syndicated columnists: Pete du Pont (Scripps Howard) and Bruce Bartlett (Creators Syndicate). Bartlett's column appears under contract twice a week in the Washington Times and in the Detroit News.

Uh huh. How about the American Enterprise Institute?

American Enterprise Institute

The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI) is one of the oldest and most influential of the pro-business right-wing think tanks. It promotes the advancement of free enterprise capitalism, and has been extremely successful in placing its people in influential governmental positions, particularly in the Bush Administration. AEI has been described as one of the country's main bastions of neoconservatism.

American Enterprise Institute
1150 Seventeenth Street NW
Washington, DC 20036

Established: 1943
President/Executive Director: Christopher DeMuth
Finances: $24,934,545 (2003 income)
Employees: more than 50 resident scholars and fellows
Board of Trustees: Chairman Bruce Kovner (Caxton Associations, LLC); Vice Chair Lee R. Raymond (Exxon Mobil Corporation); Treasurer Tully M. Friedman (Friedman, Fleischer, & Lowe LLC); Gordon M. Binder (Coastview Capital, LLC); Harlan Crow (Crow Holdings); Christopher DeMuth (American Enterprise Institute); Morton H. Fleischer (Spirit Finance Corp.); Christopher B. Galvin (Motorola); Raymond V. Gilmartin (Merck & Co.); Harvey Golub (American Express Co.); Robert F. Greenhill (Greenhill & Co., LLC) ; Roger Hertog (Alliance Capital Management Corporation); Martin M. Koffel (URS Corporation); John A. Luke, Jr. (MeadWestvaco Corp.); L. Ben Lytle (Anthem, Inc.); Alex Mandl (Gemplus International); Robert A. Pritzker (Colson Associates, Inc.); J. Joe Ricketts (Ameritrade Holding Corporation); Kevin B. Rollins (Dell, Inc.); John W. Rowe (Exelon Corp.); Edward B. Rust, Jr. (State Farm Insurance Co.); William S. Stavropoulos (Dow Chemical Co.); Wilson H. Taylor (CIGNA Corp.); Marilyn Ware (American Water); James Q. Wilson (Pepperdine University)
Publications: Monthly newsletter, dozens of books and hundreds of articles and reports each year, and a glossy policy magazine, The American Enterprise.

Yeah. You think they might have a reason for badmouthing biofuels? In case you didn't read through all that (shame on you), look: Vice Chair Lee R. Raymond (Exxon Mobil Corporation). What does that say to you?

Look, I'm not saying big food doesn't have their hands in this too. I mean, come on, I know Con Agra is probably seeing a few billion more dollars in their hands from corn-based ethanol, not to mention manure-powered ethanol plants. And this isn't a perfect technology. Instead of encouraging feed lots, we need to discourage them. But that's a lot of manure anyway, and we might as well make energy from it.

That doesn't mean Mark Stuertz is right in his closing paragraph:

The upshot? Fossil fuels will in all likelihood be our most significant fuel source by far for a long time, at least through the next century. No plausible combination of alternative fuels or efficiency gains can substitute in any significance for projected oil consumption growth in the foreseeable future—at least not without onerous taxes and police state tactics. The potential alternatives may be exciting and numerous, but the challenges and compromises they encumber are daunting.

"No plausible combination"? What, ethanol won't continue to scientifically advance, just like petroleum did? And what's this about "onerous taxes"? We have 140,000 soldiers in Iraq! How do we pay for that, with tooth-fairy money? Hell no, that's our tax dollars at work, and by god it is my tax dollars because I pay my taxes unlike the oil companies that get corporate tax breaks! And "police state" tactics my ass; is a Democratic, pro-energy President going to have the NSA wire-tapping us if we don't buy flex-fuel cars? Stuertz, lay off the hyperbole.

I expect better than this from the Observer.


adam said...

I read this article too. It seems intentionally contrarian at best.

Xanthippas said...

I'll be forwarding a link to this post to them...

Anonymous said...

actually, i would take serious umbrage with that last paragraph.

just look to the south if you want proof that biofuels can replace black gold.

brazil runs over 40% of it's gasoline-fueled cars on sugarcane ethanol, and they are on track to be energy independent within the next 2-3 decades. that's because brazil made a conscious decision to invest in ethanol production. they've got the process down to a science, so much so that unlike corn ethanol, the brazilians can actually get more energy out of sugarcane ethanol than the amount of energy they input to produce it.

for anyone to assert that biofuels can't replace oil-based fuels, well, that's just ignorant crazy talk. the author of that article is uterrly wrong.

just my .02.


Nat-Wu said...

That's absolutely true, and it's such an obvious counterpoint to the theme of this article that its exclusion by the author must indicate that he has an agenda. As I said, I think it's obvious that he does, given that he's using the American Enterprise Institute as a factual source.