That the Houston Chronicle would be anti-ethanol is not surprising to anyone.  It is Houston, Texas, after all.  But that the editorial board would play fast and loose with the “facts” they use to support their opinion is stunning.  For a paper of its stature to do such a poor job of fact-checking is appalling.

Given that they chose not to check the facts, I thought it might be helpful to provide them with a few for future reference.  Let’s take a look at some of their most egregious errors.

“Large quantities of fresh water are required for [ethanol’s] manufacture…”  According to the most recent analysis of ethanol production, the average water needs for one gallon of ethanol production are 2.7 gallons.  That is below the current water needs for refining a gallon of gasoline and is continuing to fall.  Moreover, with conventional sources of crude oil rapidly depleting, exploiting “harder-to-reach” oil resources will require more and more water, not to mention more environmentally irresponsible extraction practices (Alberta Tar Sands, exhibit A).

“..corn production requires high levels of fertilizer that are transported by the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in oxygen-starved dead zones…”  Fertilizer needs for corn production have continued to fall even as productivity dramatically increases.  Today, farmers are using nearly 40% less nitrogen fertilizer to produce a bushel of corn than in 1980.

“Ethanol delivers less than half the energy of conventional gasoline per gallon.”  It is true that a gallon of ethanol has fewer BTUs than a gallon of gasoline. However, a gallon of ethanol has about 2/3 the BTU content of gasoline, not “less than half.” Further, ethanol’s primary value as a gasoline additive is not derived from its energy content. Rather, ethanol provides unique and beneficial properties to finished gasoline, such as increased octane and reduced levels of benzene.

“Now America has little [corn] available for export.”  This year’s corn harvest is shaping up to be the third largest in American history.  The four largest corn crops in history have been harvested by American farmers in the last four years. Even with increased ethanol production, particularly in the past decade, US corn exports have not receded. In fact, a record amount of corn was exported in 2007, and exports in subsequent years have been well above the historical average.  The productivity of American farmers is unprecedented and continues to improve.  There are still mountains of corn available for food, feed, and fuel.  It is also important to note that world supplies of grain remain higher than historical norms.

“The competing demands on corn inventories — to feed fowl and livestock, fill boxes of packaged cereals on store shelves, and as feedstock for ethanol — have contributed to jumps of 70 percent in the value of corn futures over the past few months.”  According to a Wall Street Journal article from November 10, the major factors driving up corn prices are US monetary policy, speculation by Wall Street hedge funds, and surging demand from emerging markets.  This goes for all commodities from grains to precious metals.  Demand for ethanol production, by comparison, plays a relatively minor role.

“There are many justified federal energy subsidies, but corn ethanol isn’t one of them. A country with massive shale gas reserves like the United States should be focused on stimulating technological innovations to use it for transportation.”  If subsidies for alternatives to oil aren’t appropriate (which no one is surprised to read that is the Chronicle’s position), what are appropriate energies?  The editorial board thinks natural gas from shale is good, but doesn’t mention the enormous water needs and troubling environmental footprint of this technology while inaccurately chastising ethanol. It is laughable to disparage the environmental record of the current grain ethanol industry, while singing the praises of shale gas (a Cornell professor recently concluded that shale gas likely is worse for the climate than strip-mined coal.)

Now, it is not all doom and gloom.  We certainly agree with the editorial board that promising new biofuel technologies need and deserve support.  And we have outlined several ways this should happen.  But it’s important to appreciate the crucial role current biofuel technologies are playing in building a foundation upon which new technologies can thrive.

The Houston Chronicle does not hide its view:  more fossil fuels now.  But in the not too distant future, that prescription cannot be refilled and then where will we be?  Some forward looking policies that build upon current successes are needed – not a rewind to the glory days of the oil boom.