Big Oil Meets Big Corn in Battle of Titan Hypocrites

Jamie Lincoln Kitman

Jamie Lincoln Kitman | Jun 30, 2011

Comrade Motavalli has it right -- corn ethanol is not the way forward, especially when it's made by the big corn-glomerates; grown on big, corporate farms, knee deep in petrochemical fertilizers and genetically modified seeds.

And he is correct, too, in pointing out that ethanol doesn't need to be made from corn. When derived from other bio-cellulosic material, crop waste or even garbage, ethanol is less land-intensive and more carbon neutral, requiring less petroleum in its manufacture than corn ethanol. In a perfect world we'd be bringing on the sawgrass- and the trash-derived bio-fuels to augment electricity derived from solar, wind, wave, hydro and other renewable sources which we'd use in our electric and plug-in hybrid cars and to produce hydrogen.

But all that would be assuming that the powers that control our energy "policy" -- namely, the carbon producers -- cared to do the right thing, which is risible to any student of history, because they don't and never have. One hopes for the best, but the latest chapters in the larger story of ethanol's history as a power fuel here in America, with all its many wrinkles, reminds us in the first instance of this country's venerable tradition of socialism for the very rich.

In this sporting match up, we find Big Oil -- which has bounded through the last century and a half (since the 1859 discovery of oil in Titusville, Penn.) oblivious to any needs but those of its biggest shareholders -- pitted against those other great feeders at the public trough, Big Agriculture, who slice and dice corn and its byproducts in unwholesome and predatory ways that, like securitized mortgages, tend to hurt the public, often more than they help.

Yet, while Big Oil can certainly relate to the purely self-interested practices of companies like Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill and Monsanto, oil companies have always hated ethanol -- because all it ever does is displace petroleum products and -- spoiler alert -- they always want to sell more petroleum, not less. The oil industry does not like to be told how to formulate its gasoline or how to run its business, as a nineteenth-century fit of pique by the predecessors of today's ExxonMobil executives so vividly underlined for all time. Facing newfangled anti-trust regulation, they fumed, "We will see Standard Oil in hell before we will let any set of men tell us how to run our business!"

I'm going to say that on the spectrum of evil, between the two, the nod goes to Big Oil, just, and while they are all powerful, they don't win all of the time, just mostly all of the time, and when they lose it's not to a bunch of hippies living in yurts. As any schoolboy could tell you, no government-backed, alternative fuels program was ever going to get off the ground without surprising and delighting some other politically connected establishment, in this case, Big Farm.

And the car makers got in on the act, as their ability to build at minimal cost so-called "Flex fuel" vehicles -- capable of running on gasoline or E85 -- helped them evade the full brunt of CAF? regulations, as they earn credits toward the corporate average fuel economy for building such cars and trucks even though most people would be hard-pressed to ever find a station selling E85. And so the system was ginned.

This is not the place for an erudite discussion of the economics of better, non-corn-based ethanol. It is well to remember, though, that many of the criticisms of corn-based ethanol that have emanated from the oil and automobile industries are completely disingenuous. For example, the carmakers that back E85 -- 85 percent ethanol/gasoline mixes -- lobbied this year against E15, saying it could be harmful to the workings of the car. How does that work, you might ask? During one six-month period not long ago, I remember receiving two press releases from General Motors, one pro-ethanol, one anti.

Thus, while negative accounts of corn ethanol's carbon footprint may well have substance, they tend to neglect the huge amounts of petroleum spent in acquiring and delivering ...petroleum. Or that the people making arguments about environmental impact are often busy excusing horrific environmental impacts of their own making.

Lost, too, in all the amped up anti-bio-fuel rhetoric as titans collide is this simple fact: Never can one be more certain of a thing then when a multi-national corporation tells you that the questionable activity in which it is engaged must be done because the lives of those in the developing world depend on it. This declaration you may take to the bank, safe and secure in the knowledge that somehow you've been lied to.

Let Kitman's First Truism concerning Corporate Altruism guide your thinking when you hear oil companies decry the rise of bio-fuels, tearfully relating how cropland that might otherwise go to feeding the world's poor will instead be devoted to powering someone's car. The obvious question here: What world would that be? The one in a parallel universe, where everything is the same except major corporations look out for the poor and send them food they cannot afford on their own and where oil companies want people to use less oil, not more?

Frankly, nothing frosts my chaps more than appeals to my sense of humanity and fairness when put forward by enterprises that have spent countless decades, sometimes even centuries, doing the most inhumane, unfair things. Can anyone pretend that oil companies hold something dearer to their cold dead hearts than what they call maximization of shareholder value?

Why, yes, as it happens, oil companies pretend just that. Self-aggrandizement packaged as altruism is no longer a scoundrel's last refuge; it is his first line of attack. "We care!"

Perhaps it is because the gravity and potential legal implications of the environmental wrongs committed over the last 100 and more years -- better living through chemistry, DuPont used to say -- have only just fallen into relief. Now that global warming is known and we've begun to realize how polluted our air and water really are, how comprehensively we've trashed the place, largely by playing with fossil fuels and their derivatives, the mind boggles. And how interconnected it all is. And such a short time it took! There is today and there will be tomorrow, as the heavy finger of responsibility is pointed again and again at oil companies, the need not just for any lie, but for a really, really big lie--actually, a series of really big lies, and a lot of little ones.

Watch the public relations men and women fanning out across the globe, like the invasive cane toads of Australia, with a similar toxic effect and annoying architectural eyewear, to spread the word about our energy "choices."

We hear about Arab and Venezuelan intransigence and the ripple effects of high petroleum demand in China and India, including food shortages and high prices at the pump. More proof, we are told, of the world's urgent need to swallow the industry agenda whole: lose bio-fuels immediately, weaken existing and eliminate new environmental regulations, including those aimed at curbing C02 emissions, and resist all nationalized oil movements. Taxes must be cut while heavy profits are allowed to accrue. More drilling, offshore and in protected lands, is essential.

Meanwhile, the energy providers' growing economic might empowers them to make mighty green claims, repeated by the media no matter how ridiculous or self-serving: "Beyond Petroleum." "Clean coal." "Safe nuclear energy."

So while I'm dubious about corn ethanol and the agricultural combines, I'm not ready to swear off ethanol completely. And not just because I need a drink.

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