When Will Sub-Standard Journalism End?

  • Thursday, 11 February 2016 11:18

It's been over a week since the Iowa Caucuses but that hasn't stopped some media organizations from tripping over themselves in analysing what Sen. Ted Cruz' victory means for the future of the ethanol industry.

Much like the pre-Iowa op-eds on ethanol, the post-caucuses editorials are just as factually inaccurate and highlights just how low journalism standards have fallen.

The latest example of sub-standard journalism comes courtesy of this poorly researched piece from NPR (The Shocking Truth About America's Ethanol Law : It Doesn't Matter (For Now)) which was published on Feb 10. 

NPR anti-ethanol story

To be fair, the article (or was it an analysis?) does try to highlight the importance of ethanol as an octane booster and that even without the RFS, ethanol will still be used by our nation's oil refiners (ergo: who needs the RFS). And while that is somewhat of an erroneous conclusion (which we will get to later), let's first address some of the other blatantly false statements made on the ethanol industry in the article.

"Feeding those distilleries is now a full time job for roughly 35 million acres, or 55,000 square miles, of corn fields."

The author cites a report from Iowa State University on corn usage projections for the current and next markting years in arriving at this conclusion. Strangely enough, we weren't able to see how he came up with 35 million acres. Based on the report, acres allocated for corn used for ethanol and DDGs in the current marketing year would amount to 30.7 million acres.

But again, that's including DDGs. Perhaps the author is unfamiliar that 18 lbs of every bushel of corn used for ethanol is returned as DDGs (a high-protein animal feed). In fact, the same report states that DDGs production for the current marketing year is the equivalent of 1.23 billion bushels of corn. 

That, in turn, equals to 7.27 million acres, since the projected yield for the current marketing year is 169.3 bushels per acre. As such, only 23.43 million acres of corn will be used for ethanol in the current marketing year. 

"Offhand, I can't think of a single agricultural product that exceeds the scale of ethanol."

We can. It's called feed corn. Read that report again. 

"The loser, he says, is the American consumer, to the tune of about $10 billion each year."

The "he" being referred to in the quote above is Robert Bryce from the Manhattan Institute. Bryce has written many anti-ethanol op-eds over the years and for good reason too. The Manhattan Institute has recieved over $2.5 million in funding from oil interests over the years. The next time NPR plans on quoting Bryce in an article on ethanol, it should at least cite his allegiance to the oil industry. 

Interestingly enough, the author cites Bryce's ludicrous assertion that consumers lose $10 billion each year and then later in the article says oil refiners use ethanol as an octane booster because "alternative sources of octane are more expensive." Isn't that a paradox? Doesn't that suggest consumers are saving at the pump because of ethanol?

As mentioned above, the author does devote a lengthy section arguing that even without the RFS, oil refiners would still blend gasoline with ethanol because of the latter's octane rating and due to the fact that it's cheap. But where the author misses the point is how much ethanol would be blended into our nation's gasoline supply if there wasn't an RFS?

The RFS sets specific volumes that need to be blended each year and the amount stipulated by Congress for 2016 is 15 billion gallons of ethanol derived from corn. The EPA recently lowered it to 14.5 billion gallons thanks to immense pressure from the oil industry. And the oil industry does not want to blend more ethanol, it wants to blend less. 

A study by the University of Tennessee - that was funded by the oil lobby - released in October last year stated that if ethanol was only used for oxygenate reasons, only 4.34 billion gallons would be needed. Now, most of the "facts" cited in the study have been widely discredited but seeing as to how this study was funded by the oil industry, it's safe to assume that 4.34 billion gallons of ethanol is what the oil industry would prefer.

Ten percent of the gasoline we use comprises of ethanol because of the RFS. And thanks to the RFS, California's Life-Cycle Associates have concluded that 354 million metric tonnes of greenhouse gases (GHG) have been reduced from 2008 - 2015.

The RFS calls for more ethanol to be blended with our nation's gasoline and the EPA has approved the use of E15 in all cars 2001 and newer. An analysis by the University of Illinois last year said if all gasoline in Minnesota contained 15 percent ethanol, GHG emissions would be reduced by an additional 358,000 metric tonnes per year. 

The oil industry clearly does not want to blend more ethanol than it needs to. The author even cites an analyst from Stratas Advisors - an energy consulting firm - who correctly points out that the oil industry does not want to even give up 10 percent to ethanol. If they don't want to give up 10 percent, how likely will they give up 15 percent?

The oil industry has never been interested in combating climate change considering how it has contributed significantly to it. Without the RFS, we will lose all the progress we have and will make in reducing GHG emissions. 

Also, the RFS was enacted to reduce our dependency on foreign oil. While the shale oil boom has dramatically increased local crude oil production, record-low prices may drive as many as 150 oil and gas companies bankrupt. When that happens, more foreign oil will flow into our transportation system. But thanks to the RFS, we have the opportunity to increase the amount of a homegrown renewable fuel into our transportation system instead. 

And so, to NPR and the author of the aforementioned poorly researched article, the RFS DOES matter.