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Professor Attacks Enthusiasm for Bio-Fuels


Bio-fuels are hot, hot, hot. A growing number of Americans who want to strike a blow for the environment and energy independence have embraced ethanol and bio-diesel. They're eager to replace gasoline with fuel made from corn and soy beans. Two nights ago, President Bush chimed in with his endorsement for ethanol, but not everyone is so enthusiastic. NPR's Martin Kaste has this profile of a Berkeley engineering professor who's waging a campaign against what he calls the bio-fuels delusion.

MARTIN KASTE reporting:

Tad Patzek comes from Poland, and as soon as you meet him you notice a certain charming Slavic gloom; a gloom that manifests itself even as we're still setting up our microphone.

KASTE: So you've done these before, these interviews, huh?

Professor TAD W. PATZEK (Professor, Civil & Environmental Engineering, University of California, Berkeley): Well, yeah, a couple, not that it really changes anything.

KASTE: Well, if nothing else, people know what's going on or they try to or don't.

Prof. PATZEK: No, they don't.

KASTE: They don't?

Prof. PATZEK: No, with some small exceptions, it makes no difference.

KASTE: Although he goes by Tad in the U.S., his real name is Tadosh(ph). The name honors an 18th century Polish general who fought valiant battles in a losing war against an overwhelming Russian army. The name suits Patzek's penchant for lost causes, especially his effort to get the ethanol industry to accept certain calculations he's made.

Prof. PATZEK: About a tenth more fossil fuel is required to produce ethanol than the energy you get.

KASTE: That's right. He's saying it takes more fossil fuel to make corn ethanol than the energy that comes out. It's a disturbing claim, given that ethanol is being sold as a way to get this country off foreign oil. In his controversial equations, Patzek tries to count all the fossil fuels burned in the making of corn ethanol: the mechanized farming, the petroleum based fertilizers, the drying and cooking of the corn in the ethanol plants. All told, he says, more goes in than comes out, and that has earned him some hate mail.

Prof. PATZEK: If I get an e-mail that the best way to solve energy problem would be to burn people like me, that actually comes from a guy who probably drives a bio-diesel car.

KASTE: Patzek is often accused of being a shill for big oil, even though it's been more than a decade since his last job in the industry, and the fact that he's in favor of cutting oil use as much as possible. His calmer critics, and there are many, say he's too broad in what he counts. For example, why should he count the energy that it takes to build the farmer's tractors? Patzek counterattacks with new data from Illinois showing that in real life, corn does not yield as much ethanol as its advocates claim. What started as a classroom exercise now has Patzek traveling around the country, taking part in debates, and testifying against new ethanol plants.

Prof. PATZEK: It has sucked me in, but I have to watch out, because I'm only one person. I actually get no funding for any of this; I do it as a hobby. There isn't a government agency that would fund my research.

KASTE: But, like his namesake, the Polish general, Patzek is facing long odds. Regardless of his calculations, the ethanol industry is booming.

(Soundbite of factory noise)

KASTE: New government mandates and higher oil prices have caused ethanol plants to pop up around the country. This one, being built near Fresno, California, belongs to Pacific Ethanol, a company that recently got an $84 million infusion from Bill Gates' investment company. The idea here is to bring in train loads of mid-western corn, brew it up like moonshine, sell the ethanol to oil companies, and the leftover corn mash to dairy farms. CEO Neil Koehler is all optimism. Yes, he has heard of Professor Patzek's work, but he dismisses it as mere static.

Mr. NEIL KOEHLER (CEO, Pacific Ethanol): We know that what we're doing is the right thing to be doing; it's the right thing for the economy. But it sure would be great if everybody could agree that what's happening here is the correct way to be moving and that we can continue to not confuse the public, but get them to demand more of the kind of things that we're bringing to the market.

KASTE: Patzek has also looked at the other bio-fuel, so-called bio-diesel, which is essentially vegetable oil. He says bio-diesel is a slightly better energy deal than ethanol, but it's still not great. The bio-diesel bug has bitten especially hard here in the Northwest at places such as Dr. Dan's Alternative Fuel Werks in Seattle. Corey Larson is one of those who are willing to pay more and wait in line in order to fill her VW with soybean oil.

Ms. COREY LARSON (Resident, Seattle, Washington): Cause I don't feel so bad about driving. I can be lazy and not feel guilty, and I feel like I'm not contributing to petroleum products and the over consumption of oil.

KASTE: But back at Berkeley, Professor Patzek says this attitude is the problem with bio-fuels.

Prof. PATZEK: They're saying don't worry, Mr. Customer. All you have to do is go to that bio-fuel station, fill up your car, and then leave dreaming. It's okay to burn this fuel, because you're going to be helping the environment. Well, not so, say I.

KASTE: In the end, Patzek and his critics are not all that far apart in their calculations. Even under the optimistic scenarios, making a gallon of corn ethanol still consumes a lot of fossil fuel. It drives Patzek crazy to think that eco-minded drivers will see bio-fuels as 100% guilt free, like so many fat free potato chips. He says bio-fuel allows the country to continue avoiding more meaningful steps to curb oil use, such as requiring better gas mileage, and redesigning our lives so that we drive less.

(Soundbite of factory noise)

KASTE: At the Pacific Ethanol plant in California, Neil Koehler says, even though he does not accept Patzek's analysis of bio-fuels, he admits corn ethanol is not perfect.

Mr. KOEHLER: While I appreciate the concern that using bio-fuels is maybe just using more fuel as opposed to using less, it's all part of a holistic plan, in my view, to move to more sustainable sources of energy.

KASTE: Koehler looks forward to the possibility of something better than corn ethanol, cellulosic ethanol, a new technology that promises to turn straw or corn stalks into fuel. Cellulosic ethanol is not yet commercially viable, but it's become a kind of Holy Grail for ethanol boosters. Koehler says corn ethanol and bio-diesel are, what he calls, baby steps toward real oil independence. But to Professor Patzek, those baby steps are in the wrong direction. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.