Ethanol welcomes regulation: God knows we wouldn’t want to be Big Oil

While we believe the fines for permit violations assessed at five plants in Minnesota this year are excessive and punitive, still the industry is better for having a process of collaboration with government in which the ethanol industry is called upon to have the least environmental impact it can have.

However, we find the Star Tribune’s analysis of ethanol’s environmental impact to be naive in the extreme. Today’s article holds an unstated premise that there exists some form of energy that we could create for our society that doesn’t have some environmental impact.

De facto, to limit or dismantle ethanol industry growth is to support oil. These are the only two alternatives for the majority of transportation vehicles, and for the technology we currently possess. Yes, there is a growing fleet of hybrid vehicles, but that only means that less gasoline is consumed per vehicle mile. Gasoline is still consumed. And plug-in hybrids, when they come, will simply allow users not to think about the environmental impact of how the necessary electricity is generated.

Partisans like Jeff Broberg complain about the use of water by the ethanol industry. We would like to point out that Koch Industries, with its Flint Hills Resources refinery in Rosemount, has a permit to use two billion gallons of water per year. One wonders if one allowed Koch to grow by the amount that Broberg would like to limit or reduce the ethanol industry, how that would affect the trout streams of southeastern Minnesota?

The point is, the ability of the world to support its growing human population, and to give humanity the hope that a growing portion of them can live beyond mere subsistence depends on growing our system of low-cost energy. Unless you want to play a game of 52-pick up with the world economy, you can’t choose not to develop some form of transportation energy.

A reason to celebrate the interplay between Minnesota regulators and our ethanol industry is that God knows we would not want to be Big Oil.

For most of its first century, the oil industry added lead to gasoline to reduce knocking, knowing full well it was a poison. Leaded gasoline caused untold misery by poisoning literally millions of people in America and around the world. Lead only disappeared from gasoline, thanks to government regulation, in the 1990s.

But who gives oil a clean bill of health now? The aromatics in gasoline that help it perform well are a laundry list of proven carcinogens. When the oil industry tried to offer its own oxygenate additive, MTBE–a fractionate from oil and natural gas wellheads, many communities discovered only too late that MTBE cannot be contained by underground storage tanks and quickly leaks into groundwater.

In 2000, EPA fined Koch Industries $30 million for 300 oil spills in six states (!OpenDocument).

Of course, regulatory attention can lead to improvements. In 2008, Koch’s Flint Hills Resources was one of 170 entities to win Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s wastewater operator of the year award for its implementation of wastewater recycling. Poet Biorefining, a Minnesota ethanol plant, also won the wastewater operator award in 2008. The point is it is possible for industry to improve its environmental impact.

What if PCA had been in charge of regulating blow-out preventers–you know, the valve that was supposed to prevent oil from leaking from an offshore oil well? Perhaps hundreds of millions of gallons of oil would not have poured into the Gulf of Mexico. We’re glad that PCA is helping correct the ethanol industry when it accidentally dumps water meant for golf course irrigation, or burns pre-treated wood in its fluid bed reactor (which, by the way, reduces carbon emissions by using renewable biomass instead of natural gas).

Finally, people who campaign against ethanol have a right to know what they are really signing up for. Here is a report from 2008, from the Kiplinger Letter (a leading source for business news) about the future of domestic oil development in the United States.

“The U.S. is sitting on the world’s largest, untapped oil reserves (2.3 trillion barrels),” writes Jeff Ostroff. “What’s the problem then? Why aren’t oil companies jumping to pump the black gold? Contrary to what some conspiracy theorists would have you believe, there is no cabal of oil companies and foreign governments blocking the way, bottling up U.S. oil production. The reality is much more mundane. Those untapped reserves are located in places that either Uncle Sam has put off-limits for environmental reasons or are too costly to get — or a combination of both.”

Ostroff reviews the shortlist of untapped reserves, without a scintilla of concern about the environmental degradation they will involve. He notes that the vast oil shale reserves that sit under Colorado and Wyoming are atop “pristine” federal nature reserves, and that processing these rocks for the oil they contain involves “cooking or chemical treatment.” Typically, this means Thermally Enhanced Oil Recovery, among other techniques, which requires a tremendous amount of energy (read far more ‘carbon intense’ than ordinary oil recovery), and which requires the use of water resources, which needless to say are not the same after they have been used to process petroleum.

We will include only the Bakken Play, because it is in Minnesota’s backyard–the Dakotas and Saskatchewan. Two years after this article appeared, is no long an untapped oil source:

The Kiplinger Letter article reads:
“The Bakken Play:  With up to 100 billion barrels of oil, the reserves locked under rocks buried a mile or more beneath Montana and Saskatchewan, Canada, are more than twice the size of Alaskan’s entire oil cache. New drilling and oil recovery technologies are overcoming production obstacles and petroleum companies are rushing to stake their claims. Marathon Oil recently acquired about 200,000 acres in the area and will drill about 300 oil wells within five years. Brigham Exploration and Crescent Point Energy Trust also want a piece of the action. EOG Resources alone figures it can produce 80 million barrels of oil from its Bakken field. But It will take at least five years before the oil starts flowing in large volumes.”

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