Sunday, March 10, 2013


On December 20, 2008 a full-page piece entitled Ethanol: An Imminent Threat To Humanity appeared in the front section of The Globe and Mail (widely considered Canada's finest newspaper).

That piece was the culmination of two years of time and considerable financial commitment as it was researched, authored and financed by me. For those that like to dig a little deeper, peruse the blog in reverse order for an interesting read.

This video followed the publication of the expose:

I will never be certain how much influence my efforts had. I do however know the piece mobilized many people to urge Canada's leaders to abandon a very dangerous policy, over twenty of them PhDs. It also mobilized a few people to send me venomous emails.  I consider that an indicator of success.

While its use for fuel has not ceased, no-one ever speaks of ethanol for fuel as "the" solution to anything anymore.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Ethanol Spin Machine Is Alive And Kicking In The U.S.

Buried in the second to last paragraph: U.S. corn crop diverted to make totally inefficient biofuels up from 20% to 40% in two years. Meanwhile, one billion people are undernourished, and food prices are set to rise world-wide. Corn is an input for all dairy and meat products.

Shouldn't economists be taking a closer look at the relationship between food prices and ethanol? Or is unaffordable food simply of no concern to the wealthy?

Which is the greater evil, Big Oil or Big Corn? The rank hypocrisy - to say nothing of the rank stupidity - is enough to make one pig-biting mad.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Getting At The Root Of The Problem

Hi all,

Well I'm back home from my desert walkabout and hard at work again. I've been focusing on twitter as a tool to get my message out, and with 1150 followers I think I'm making inroads. I've also linked my twitter account,, to this blog. You can see my five most recent updates a little lower on the right side of the screen.

I read today on twitter about a group called Camfed ( whose goal is to educate girls in Africa. Did you know that an educated African woman has, on average, two fewer children than an uneducated one? With the planet's population predicted to grow from 6.5B to 9.5B in the next 50 years, is this not the sort of thing we should be focusing on for the sake of people and of the environment?

I also read that a First Energy electric generating facility in Ohio is in the process of switching from burning coal (a hydrocarbon) to burning wood chips and corn (hydrocarbons). This will enable them to get carbon credits. Is this a desirable outcome? Or is it just surreal?

You know that cap & trade and carbon markets, in addition to vast subsidies for renewable energy, are looming large on the American and international agendas. Here's my pitch: We need to be wary of large scale solutions because they don't always generate the desired behaviour and they can be very hard to reverse. And of course, because their impact is far-reaching. We're not talking about retrofitting McDonald's cash registers here.

No one is denying that certain climate patterns are changing, and whether we fully understand what's happening or not, who can argue against less polluting technologies? But for goodness sake lets relax about tipping points and let the scientists do their work. Tremendous progress is being made on electric cars, for example. The world is not going to end tomorrow.

And while the scientists are doing their jobs, why don't the rest of us work on making the lives of Africans and everyone else better by helping those young girls get an education?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Does it walk like a duck?

Hello everyone,

At various points in my blog, I talk about the lack of integrity I have come to see in Canada's political system when it comes to ethanol. Some of you may be uncomfortable that I won't play down the politics of this issue.

Well I won't back down. I can't. I am proud of the work I'm doing and I believe it is necessary. This dangerous situation exists precisely because of a faulty system. The problem IS the politics. If someone doesn't call these guys on their lies and hypocrisy, there will be more ethanol fiascos, banking crises, etc in the future.

Pretty strong assertions, eh? If you want proof, go here and read all about the connections between ethanol lobbyists and Canada's politicians.

Is it corruption? Decide for yourself by applying that tried and true yardstick: when it walks and talks, does it do so in a duck-like fashion?


P.S... Has anyone been noticing recent press coverage about imminent crop failures in the southern hemisphere - Argentina, Southern Brazil, Australia - due to drought? Have you heard that there is a move afoot in the U.S. to increase the ethanol blend limit in motor fuel from 10% to 15% to keep afloat an industry that was never viable in the first place? Did you know that in 2007, the U.S ethanol industry received over $3 billion in tax credits, versus $694 million for all other alternative energy sources - solar, wind, geothermal, etc - combined?

If you would like any help connecting the dots, just let me know.

Friday, January 30, 2009

No We Can't

As I mentioned in previous posts, a number of people contacted me about my Globe piece. One of those people is Dr. Helmut Burkhardt, a Professor of Physics Emeritus at Ryerson University in Toronto. Dr. Burkhardt wanted me to know about a paper he published in 2006 entitled Physical Limits to Large Scale Biomass Generation for Replacing Fossil Fuels.

Dr. Burkhardt's paper helped me to understand the arithmetic of energy generation and consumption. Of the many facts and figures he presents, I found this passage particularly useful:

"The problem of large scale global use of biomass can be visualized by comparing it with food energy. A person needs some 100W of food energy - some 2000 kCal per day. Feeding the present world energy system with biomass power of 2300 W/person [current average power consumption per person] is equivalent to feeding 23 'energy slaves' for each person. It is quite obvious that a healthy World ecosystem cannot spare sufficient biomass production to feed the equivalent of 156 billion human beings."

So there are some hard numbers, for perspective. But as you know, I like to liven up hard numbers with intangibles. So here's a bit of touchy-feely stuff...

One very cold day early in the month, I found myself thinking that this business of saving the planet was lots of work. And while Toronto is a great place in June - in January, well not so much. Now just so you know, I am neither a martyr nor a saint. So I did what any normal person that just spent half his assets on a newspaper ad would do. I packed my bags and the next day my laptop and I were in New Orleans, getting ready to start a two month road trip to California and back.

Have you ever driven through the American Southwest? You should. Make sure to get off the interstate to experience the desert from the back roads. Get out of the car and walk. You'll soon see that, far from being dry and dead, the southwest desert is a wondrous place, full of life. Mesquite, creosote, agave and yucca. Roadrunners, javelinas and rattlesnakes. Broad expanses of mountains, rolling hills and open range. Endless blue sky.

Americans are a lucky bunch.

Spirituality is very personal and I don't like to talk about mine publicly. But I will say this: If this blue sphere of ours is nothing but an accident, it's one helluva of a beautiful accident indeed. During my travels I've been meeting many people - ordinary Americans, foreign tourists, parks staff, and a surprising number of Canucks - that are very committed to respecting and protecting this little accident of ours.

Unfortunately, that's not the case for everybody. Despite the physical impossibility of using plant matter to make a significant dent in our energy requirements, our governments are ignoring math and science and getting ready to dive headfirst into biomass as an alternative energy source.

And then there are people like the anonymous poster that left this telling comment to my post Farmers, and the Yin and Yang of Advocating:

"Dude, here's the fact: Ethanol = Sugar + Yeast. The planet is full of sugar, there are 70 million acres of mesquite in the US southwest with starch pods full of it - it just needs to be harvested."

How do you folks in West Texas, New Mexico and Arizona feel about that?

There you have it. If we want, we can fool ourselves into creating a "new economy" that subsidizes people to cut down, burn and plough over all of our remaining wilderness. There is no shortage of people ready to do just that if there is money to be made. But with all the wishful thinking in the world, it will not make a significant dent in our energy requirements because it is a physical impossibility.

So no, Mr. Obama, you can't.

You just can't.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

But don't just take it from me

Happy New Year everyone!

I wanted to let you know that excellent feedback is continuing to flow about my article. I have heard from at least 15 PhDs, including business profs, agronomists, and environmental scientists who tell me my argument is bang on. Interestingly, many of them can't actually say so publicly because taking an advocacy position could be considered a professional conflict of interest. Similarly, I have heard from a number of private individuals who are involved with charitable organizations in the environmental and anti-poverty fields. They too are in agreement with me, but they can't say so publicly in a professional capacity, because guess what? Charitable organizations are not allowed to take a political stance.

Doesn't seem right to me. In fact, it sounds kind of like muzzling.

Mes amis, if trying to save the planet from running out of food and people from starving to death is considered too political these days, then go ahead. Paint me political.

Luckily, and just in the nick of time, I dug up a little scientific and business research to back my case up.

This paper by Dr. Mark Jacobson of Stanford's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering ranks corn and cellulosic ethanol DEAD LAST out of twelve new technology solutions for global warming, air pollution and energy security. The paper is very technical so it should satisfy all of you science types. And it is in the public domain, so I can use it. This article from, also in the public domain, talks about Dr. Jacobson's paper in terms that are easier for the rest of us to grasp. Here is an excerpt:

"The energy alternatives that are good are not the ones that people have been talking about the most. And some options that have been proposed are just downright awful," Jacobson said. "Ethanol-based biofuels will actually cause more harm to human health, wildlife, water supply and land use than current fossil fuels." He added that ethanol may also emit more global-warming pollutants than fossil fuels, according to the latest scientific studies.

The raw energy sources that Jacobson found to be the most promising are, in order, wind, concentrated solar (the use of mirrors to heat a fluid), geothermal, tidal, solar photovoltaics (rooftop solar panels), wave and hydroelectric. He recommends against nuclear, coal with carbon capture and sequestration, corn ethanol and cellulosic ethanol, which is made of prairie grass. In fact, he found cellulosic ethanol was worse than corn ethanol because it results in more air pollution, requires more land to produce and causes more damage to wildlife."

This paper, also by Dr. Jacobson, studies the health effects of ethanol as compared to gasoline. Here is an excerpt:

"Due to its ozone effects, future E85 may be a greater overall public health risk than gasoline. However, because of the uncertainty in future emission regulations, it can be concluded with confidence only that E85 is unlikely to improve air quality over future gasoline vehicles."

Next, this paper, by Dr David Pimentel, of Cornell's College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, looks at ethanol from the standpoint of an agricultural scientist. Here is an excerpt from Dr. Pimentel's review:

"The environmental impacts of corn ethanol are serious and diverse. These include severe soil erosion of valuable cropland, plus the heavy use of nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides that pollute rivers. Large quantities of carbon dioxide are produced and released into the atmosphere because significant amounts of fossil fuel energy are used in ethanol production. Then during the fermentation process, about 25% of the carbon from the sugars and starches is released as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. These two major releases of carbon dioxide significantly contribute to global warming."

Finally, in case you think I'm just making the whole supply/demand/stock levels thing up, take a look at a December 11 article from Canada's GlobeInvestor online business magazine entitled Appetite for Grains About to Revive? Here are a few excerpts from that piece:

"Analysts point to the fact that the amount of wheat, corn and soybeans left unconsumed at the end of the crop year is at historically low levels at a time when the world’s population is growing. While the world wheat crop was the largest ever this year, surplus stocks are the fourth-lowest in 50 years, notes Don Bousquet, a grains market analyst and the host of the long-running Farm Market News broadcast heard on rural radio stations across Western Canada. Farmers next year are expected to cut back on wheat acres planted, given the recent price decline and the high cost of fertilizer, he said. Meanwhile, the U.S. corn crop is expected to be the second-largest on record this year, but surplus stocks should be among the lowest, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It’s a similar case with soybeans.


Another source of strong demand – the push for renewable fuels. In mid-November, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency raised the 2009 renewable fuel standard to 10.21 per cent to ensure at least 11.1 billion gallons of renewable fuels are blended into transportation gasoline. That calls for about 500 million gallons of biodiesel and renewable diesel. Nearly 40 per cent of the U.S. corn crop this year will go towards making ethanol for gasoline, and that percentage will increase in coming years, according to Patricia Mohr, vice-president of Scotia Economics in Toronto.


“On a supply-demand basis, grains are now greatly under-priced,” Mr. Coxe wrote in a recent report."

Ethanol. A real stinker on the verge of asphyxiating just about everyone on the planet with the possible exception of a few grain speculators. I'm not the only one thinking it.

I've just spent an entire year of my life struggling to fight what has turned into a mammoth battle between good and evil. David and Goliath for the twenty-first century. This is my life's work. I was given a brain, insight, ideals, a backbone, and the responsibility to use them. I am more fortunate than anyone can know.

I will continue to lead this fight against city hall - with the support of many wonderful people, the smarts of a couple of great brains from Stanford and Cornell, the insight of business gurus from Canada's National Newspaper, and a trusty electronic megaphone on my lap to slay a mighty dragon with. The world will watch in awe as the forces of good PREVAIL.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Am I a heretic? ...and other existential questions

OK... One last post before I head to Mom & Dad's for Christmas.

Back in September, someone posted a comment in my blog asking about my thoughts on cellulosic ethanol. Cellulosic ethanol is a "next generation" bio-fuel made from non-food plant matter, like wood chips. The idea is that it doesn't compete with the food supply. I used it as a springboard to talk a little bit about my views on the environment - which I think you might find controversial. Surprise, surprise.

After considerable thought, and knowing that I will be opening a can of worms, I have decided to re-post that comment here on the main blog, rather than leave it buried in the comments. Here's the bottom line: I think that any approach that advocates growing our fuel invites a slippery slope of consequences that could logically lead to clearcutting the planet, releasing greenhouse gases, loss of biodiversity, and of course the obvious concerns about food supply.

But what the hell do I know?

Beware the devil of unintended consequences.

Read the comment, just below, for that and other heretical little gems to keep you thinking over the holidays.

And don't forget to watch my YouTube videos, join my Facebook group, and read my Globe and Mail piece. You can also view all of my correspondence with the Canadian government up until the start of my blog in August. Just follow the links on the right hand side of the screen.

Now here's the comment:

Thanks for your question comment about cellulosic ethanol, Rob.

I realize that the issue of cellulosic bio-fuels is a gap in my argument. In fact, I consciously chose to specify that my concern was with grain-based ethanol, while leaving cellulosic an open issue for the environmental experts to sort out. I don't feel I have the technical knowledge of that aspect of the issue to take a solid stand. And frankly, I don't think it should become a red herring in the urgent issue, which is food for fuel.

That said, if there is a devil in the cellulosic details I think it will be in the unintended consequences. Will an entire industry spring up lobbying for a variety of "forest management" techniques that produce a steady, efficient stream of forest waste?

Beyond that, I'll take this opportunity to talk a bit about my own environmental credentials and views. I have a history of being concerned about unsexy issues like ethanol and the environment. I live in a compact apartment in central Toronto, I try to walk or cycle everywhere, and the last time I owned a car was 1990. I realize most people would not see these as realistic options, but I find that the important thing is to make conscious choices. Your life will then evolve around them. I think I have a fantastic quality of life, and I will compare carbon footprints with anyone.

My sense is that the best way for our society to protect the environment is to bring a consistent level of prosperity to the planet. First, it will allow the demographic shift to occur in places like sub-Saharan Africa, so that the earth's population stabilizes. Secondly, it will afford tropical countries the economic means to put measures in place that truly protect rainforests (for example). Thirdly, it will allow us to look for truly viable technological alternatives to hydrocarbons.

Next, I am in favour of reflecting the environment costs of resource usage in their price. It is a universal truth that people value what they pay for.

Finally, I think we should try to accept with calmness and serenity that civilizations rise and fall, and that ours might too one day.

Let it not be because we rushed to jump of a cliff, like lemmings.