Bernie Sanders, Money, and Ethanol

Bernie Sanders seems to have a particular complaintwith the way politics is run today. He claims that politicians have been bought by the corporations and billionaires and no longer represent the voters.
An example of this would be the ethanol mandate which forces gas companies to use ethanol as part of their fuel blends. One corporation Archer Daniels Midlands, produces about a third of all ethanol and have reaped billions in profits from ethanol production. This despite the fact that ethanol makes gas more expensive, makes food more expensive, and contributes to global warming.
Sanders realized this and in 2011 voted to end the ethanol subsidy saying
““I voted today to end the ethanol subsidy which would save taxpayers $3 billion for the remainder of this year. Subsidizing the ethanol industry not only is a great expenditure of taxpayer dollars, but it also has a negative impact on farmers and consumers in Vermont and around the world in terms of higher feed prices and higher prices for food.””
Ethanol makes food and gas more expensive, this hurts the poor the most since food and gas make up a larger percentage of their expenses than it does for the rich. Ethanol enriches corporations who then in turn donate millions to politicians. Sanders correctly opposed ethanol as a gift to the rich at the expense of the poor.

Yet today Sanders has embracedethanol. He claims it will be a part of the solution to global warming despite all the sciencethat says ethanol is worse for global warming than gasoline.
If we take Sanders rhetoric seriously the obvious conclusion is that Sanders has been bribed by the ethanol industry to change his mind. Yet, I don’t think that is true. He is running in Iowa and many corn farmers vote in Iowa so he is pandering to get their votes. This is true of all the candidates running for president this year except Paul and Cruz. They are responding to the voters and not special interests or billionaires. The problem with politics is not that politicians are in the pockets of billionaires but that they are responding to the voters. So no matter how Sanders tries to get money out of politics special interests will still win because voters are aligned with special interests. Despite being in politics for over thirty years Sanders still does not know how it works.

And yet…he is in a tough personal demographic for someone hollering about white male privilege; he has a goofy face; a goofier voice; a lamentably sad sack personality; a weakness of presence so profound his own show was hijacked by a bunch of clowns nattering on about black lives mattering…and…

He is giving Billary a run for her money!

So I say he knows sumpin’ about politics I sure don’t.

I wouldn’t get my own wife’s vote if I had his shortcomings–and that’s even if I offered to pay her off.

For all the talk that this election is about shaking up business-as-usual politics, I’ll believe it when someone proposes changing the primary and caucus calendar to stop pandering to Iowa and New Hampshire.

First of all, it should be noted that even if Bernie Sanders did flip-flop on the ethanol mandate, he’s certainly not the first candidate to do so.

During her early years in the US Senate, Clinton was a staunch opponent of the corn ethanol tax. In 2002, she and three of her senate colleagues – New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer and California Democrats Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer — used that very word, “tax” to describe then-pending legislation that was to require the blending of two billion gallons of corn ethanol per year into domestic gasoline supplies. Their March 21, 2002 letter said the pending measure would add “an astonishing new anti-consumer government mandate — that every US refiner must use an ever-increasing volume of ethanol.”

They said consumers would be “forced” to use ethanol and that the legislation was “the equivalent of a new gasoline tax.” In all, during her stint in the Senate, Clinton voted against ethanol 17 times. But when she set her sites on the White House and realized she had to kowtow – just as Barack Obama was doing – to Big Corn in Iowa, she flipped like a hotcake.

Now regarding this:

I don’t think there is any difference between being influenced by big money and by voters. The voters are the American people. Those people also form themselves into various industries, groups, unions and so forth. Those interest groups in turn give the “big money” to politicians, in hopes of getting those politicians to create laws and regulations that will benefit themselves. In addition to that, the voters may directly say that they will give the vote to politicians who create certain laws and policies.

The problem with the ethanol mandate is thus. To a corn farmer in Iowa, the mandate is a good thing which brings in a very large profit. Thus, it is worth voting for a politician based solely on his or her support of the mandate. To an ordinary non-farmer in non-Iowa, the mandate is a bad thing that brings in a small loss. Because it’s only a small loss, there are bigger and more important issues out there. No one votes against a politician just because of their stance on the mandate, unless they’re a corn farmer or ethanol producer. As a result, politicians are pushed in a pro-mandate direction even though it’s bad policy that hurts most people.

The only way that this wouldn’t be true, is if the government didn’t have the power to impose the mandate in the first place. If it were simply ruled unconstitutional for the federal government to create such a mandate, then trying to buy the influence of politicians would be a waste of time and money.

I haven’t been following this particular pseudo-controversy but it seems to me that the OP conflates two entirely different things in an effort to show an inconsistency where there isn’t one.

Sanders voted against the ethanol subsidy in 2011 for the reasons he stated, as did a majority of the Senate, and the subsidy was consequently allowed to expire. The subsidy was not the same as the mandate. Sanders is currently simply saying that ethanol – and biofuels in general – while far from perfect are part of an interim solution to global warming. I fail to see the inconsistency.

You are also incorrect in referring to “all the science that says ethanol is worse for global warming than gasoline.” One controversial paper that many disagree with is not “all the science”. It’s a fact that biofuels in principle reduce emissions because they don’t release net new carbon into the carbon cycle. The study you linked tries to make the case that associated land use changes negate this benefit, and oddly enough others have attacked biofuels from a completely different angle, claiming that the energy to produce them is what negates their benefit. Both claims have been challenged and are far from conclusive.

If you really want to see hypocrisy and inconsistency in this area you just have to look at Ted Cruz – he’s railed against the ethanol mandate for years but now claims that such an interpretation is “nonsense”. In the runup to the Iowa caucuses he now says he’s ethanol’s and Iowa corn farmers’ best friend, and has dredged up the amazing other-worldly theory that if there were no mandate, gasoline producers would happily buy and dilute their own product with lots more ethanol than they do today! :smiley:

Is there actual scientific data proving that corn alcohol uses more gasoline to produce than it replaces? Because that seems wildly counterintuitive.

Considering that the people who talk this up include people who reject scientific data on much more definite matters, if not at all other times, I’m going to say that I don’t believe them, and burning alcohol is probably a good thing.

Quoting from a flawless and unquestionable source:

The capper, though, is the claim that it takes more energy to make a gallon of ethanol than you get by burning it. One of the most vocal proponents of this view is Cornell University ecology professor David Pimentel. In an analysis published in 2001 in the peer-reviewed Encyclopedia of Physical Sciences and Technology, Pimentel argued that when you add up all the energy costs–the fuel for farm tractors, the natural gas used to distill corn sugars into alcohol, and so on–making a gallon of ethanol takes 70 percent more energy than the finished product contains. And because that production energy comes mostly from fossil fuels, gasohol isn’t just wasting money but hastening the depletion of nonrenewable resources.

These findings were denounced by ethanol producers and their allies. Michael Graboski, a professor of engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, published a rebuttal of Pimentel’s paper, saying he used obsolete data, etc. Pimentel in turn rebutted the rebuttal. The debate has gotten pretty technical. I make only a few observations: (1) Pimentel seems to have tweaked his calculations–in an August bulletin from Cornell, he says making a gallon of ethanol takes 29 percent more energy than it provides, not 70 percent. (2) That conceded, the guy is no flake, among other things having chaired a U.S. Department of Energy panel that investigated ethanol economics (and reached similar conclusions) in 1980. Graboski, on the other hand, is a consultant to the National Corn Growers Association. (3) Given that ethanol production involves the conversion of massive amounts of energy from one form to another, the contention that the process is an efficient way to make fuel seems to fly in the face of basic physics–so much so that I’m inclined to regard the subsidy program, and the fact that it has survived for a quarter century, with something approaching awe. Money-wasting government schemes are hardly rare. But how many do you know of that flout the second law of thermodynamics?

If gasoline blended with corn ethanol actually is a more efficient fuel than ordinary gasoline, then the mandate is unnecessary. Energy companies would blend in the ethanol without being forced by the government to do so. If it isn’t more efficient, then the mandate is a bad thing for the environment as well as consumers.

Another fact that’s rarely mentioned. The mandate currently give us gas that’s 10% ethanol. It was originally designed to jump to 15% by now, but the government has delayed putting that into effect. If it reached 15%, that would have been enough to damage some car engines.

Even if he is shamelessly pandering to the voters in Iowa, I’d argue that it’s better than pandering to a handful of billionaires. I want a true democracy, warts and all. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than the oligarchy we’ve got now.

Study from Princeton University that shows we no longer live in a democracy:

There seem to be multiple misunderstandings going on here. The OP was first of all suggesting that Bernie had flip-flopped on the issue of ethanol and as I pointed out, I see no flip-flop and no inconsistency. The OP was then suggesting that Bernie’s support of ethanol is mistaken because “all the science” says it’s a worse polluter than gasoline, and as I also pointed out, the science says no such thing. What Bernie is saying is essentially the same thing as the federal government in imposing a mandate, and it’s not just the US federal government, but many state and local governments and other countries around the world. Are they all delusional or in the pocket of the ethanol lobby?

There are also misunderstandings in what ITR champion is trying to extrapolate from that quote. From a carbon emissions standpoint, even if what Pimentel says is true – which is far from settled – it doesn’t matter if more energy goes into each gallon of ethanol than comes out if the net carbon emissions are less. That’s the objective here. Furthermore, the amount of energy required varies greatly with the type of crop, so blanket statements here are meaningless anyway.

Secondly, from a cost standpoint, even if it were true that more energy goes into it than is delivered, that doesn’t tell us anything about costs, nor is anyone trying to violate the second law of thermodynamics. For the simple reason that a lot of that energy is free: namely, it comes from the sun, at no cost. And finally, just to put the icing on the cake of all the failed arguments, even if it did cost more there is sometimes value in paying for less pollution, as in, for instance, the cost of electric cars. Not just value, but indeed an environmental and health imperative.

This is the ridiculous argument that Cruz tried to advance to reconcile his staunch opposition to the mandate with his ostensible love for Iowa corn farmers. Can you explain why oil companies would voluntarily buy large amounts of someone else’s product to blend with their own, thereby raising their costs and paying for the privilege of selling less of their own product?

And what do you mean by “efficient”? It’s an established fact that ethanol has lower energy density than gasoline. It’s also a fact that it’s far less polluting. And also a fact that oil companies couldn’t care less that it’s less polluting, and neither do many consumers, yet it’s an essential environmental objective for all of us. That’s why the mandate is there.

Pollution also comes in different flavors. Lower ICE emissions in areas with high vehicle concentrations may outweigh emissions elsewhere. I don’t know how this maps to ethanol in vehicle fuel, or if other additives are available (that don’t have their own issues, e.g. MBTE.)

To be completely clear, no one is even claiming this. What Pimentel and his hangers-on claim is that ethanol requires more fossil fuel-based energy to produce than it yields in ethanol energy. But almost none of that energy is gasoline, and the vast majority is natural gas. So even if Pimentel’s claim were true, this would be a program to convert natural gas into a liquid gasoline replacement. However, Pimentel’s study is old, numerous more modern and more efficient ethanol plants have been built since, and no one has managed to reproduce his results. Most other studies have found marginally positive energy yield from the program.

But none of this catches the main point, which is that corn-based ethanol was supposed to be a foot in the door to create a larger ethanol market, which could be filled with more efficient sources (cellulosic ethanol.) Unfortunately, we as a country have completely failed to execute well, so flex fuel vehicles capable of burning high ratios of ethanol are still quite rare, so the 15B or so gallons of corn ethanol we produce in a year pretty much saturates all demand, so there is no way for cellulosic ethanol to get a foothold.

Despite the fact I think Pimentel’s analysis is likely incorrect, there’s no way that the current energy improvement from the ethanol program justifies its cost, beyond the pollution reducing effects, which usually kick in at an ethanol mix of only a few percent.

This particular special interest didn’t sink Ted Cruz.

Maybe certain politicians are just too lazy, stupid and greedy to perceive that they can actually get more votes by refusing to pander to special interests*.

*the definition of “special interest” being “a group I am not part of and don’t like”.

Corn is definitely a complicated system in the USA. This article speaks of corn production and the corn system.


Much of the world depends on corn for nutrition. We would best help these peoples by discouraging systems that drive up the price of corn.

Not necessarily. The only thing that’s really clear is that corn is a relatively inefficient way of producing ethanol compared, say, to sugar cane. But it’s a complex situation fraught with all kinds of dependencies and causations. I’ve no doubt that politics plays a role, but suppose that corn was diverted to food and/or cattle feed instead of ethanol. The US is such an enormous ethanol producer as well as gasoline consumer that a drastic reduction in ethanol proportions in gasoline might result in accelerated climate impacts perhaps sufficient to affect one of the most worrying of those impacts – the threats to food crops in the poorest and most vulnerable countries on the planet due to floods, droughts, and extreme weather. Every few ppm of incremental CO2 increases the odds and worsens the effects …
A 2007 study by Argonne National Laboratory found that when these entire fuel life cycles are considered, using corn-based ethanol instead of gasoline reduces life cycle GHG emissions by 19%-52%, depending on the source of energy used during ethanol production (see graph). Using cellulosic ethanol provides an even greater benefit—reducing GHG emissions by up to 86%.

Do you have a cite that people are counting the energy provided by the Sun in their energy budget comparisons with gasoline? They are talking about the fuel used for tractors and trucks and energy spent in processing the corn into ethanol. And maybe the petrochem fertilizers.

The academic studies don’t, of course. As I mentioned upthread, they are specifically comparing energy content of fossil inputs to the energy content of the ethanol output. However, that tends to get lost as the data flows down to less savvy audiences. I’ve certainly personally heard, “Of course ethanol wastes energy, second law, LOL.” And it was mentioned in ITR’s cite upthread, as well.

To be clear, my comment about the sun was in reference to the statement about the second law of thermodynamics, which of course is of no practical relevance if a large part of the energy of the system in question comes from a free source. It’s exactly like trying to argue that there’s no way you can get more energy out of a gallon of gasoline than the energy it took to extract and refine it.

On the practical side, I haven’t read the Pimentel study and probably wouldn’t be competent to critique it anyway, but from what you’ve said, even though it’s the fossil fuel energy going into it that it counts, most of that is natural gas, which is far cleaner than gasoline and probably a lot more efficient. As I said, the only thing that matters in the end is that the total carbon emissions in the ethanol lifecycle are less than gasoline, and it appears that they are – depending on the ethanol source, they could be very substantially less. It appears that the Pimentel study is crap.

I don’t know anything about modern cars.

A friend has a 5 year old Camry. Per her manual, estimated MPG is less when feeding the car ethanol based gasoline. So, she has to burn more ethanol gasoline to go the same distance, compared to straight gasoline.

Is this true for today’s cars?

Yes, the car doesn’t matter, there’s about 30% less energy in ethanol by volume than there is in gasoline.

What ethanol does is oxygenate the gas which helps it burn more cleanly and therefore produces less CO and NOx and other contaminants, as well as burning more cleanly itself and not in itself adding net new CO2 to the atmosphere (except whatever may have been produced in its manufacture and distribution). But this doesn’t change the basic efficiency AFAIK – at least, a straighforward calculation would suggest that E10 (10% ethanol) would reduce mileage by about 3%, which turns out to be just what the EPA estimates. But that small increase in fuel consumption still produces less pollution and less CO2 per mile than plain gas.