The Sacred Path

Journeys through the mist

…and not a drop to drink

I hadn’t planned on doing another environmental post so soon after Blog Action Day, but a few environmental links hit my email inbox, and those led me to others and before I knew it, I was sitting in front of my computer hearing the tickety-tick of the keys.

In Global warming, deforestation and bark beetles, I talked about how decreased precipitation and warmer temperatures over the past couple decades were wreaking havoc on the forests in the Rocky Mountains, allowing bark beetle to gain the upper hand and kill pine trees at an alarming rate. Fewer living trees means the earth’s natural ability to cleanse the air is compromised, and as the trees die, they shift from consuming CO2 to producing it as they decay.

Reduced precipitation has another effect; there is less water available for personal, commercial, industrial and agricultural use, and it’s not just in the Rocky Mountain region. Many areas of this country – and the world – are facing this problem, some due to reduced precipitation and warmer temperatures, some due to population growth, and some a combination of the two.

  • Snow pack in the Sierra Nevada range this last summer had fallen to the lowest level in 20 years. In the second half of this century even optimistic computer models show 30-70% of the Sierra snowpack will disappear.
  • The flow of the Colorado river which relies mainly on snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains was dramatically lower this past summer. At Lee’s Ferry in northern Arizona, one of the main points where the flow of the Colorado river is measured, flow was at the lowest point since measurements began 85 years ago.
  • Lake Mead, which is fed by the Colorado River and supplies nearly all of the water needs for Las Vegas, is half-empty and statistical models say it will never be full again.
  • Lake Powell, which borders Arizona and Utah and feeds Lake Mead, is also half-empty and it would take 20 years of average flow to fill it.
  • In 1995 it was reported that less than 10% of US electrical power came from hydroelectric plants, but reduced river flows will decrease power output at hydroelectric plants and increase our reliance on coal and natural gas-fired power plants, which in turn will release more CO2 into the atmosphere. And until there is some real solution for nuclear waste, I won’t even entertain nuclear plants as a possible solution. Burying the waste in drums below ground for future generations to deal with is the height of stupidity.
  • On October 23, 2007, it was estimated that Georgia’s Lake Lanier, which provides water for five million people, will not last more than 79 days at the current rate of consumption, and to bring it back to a normal level would require four months worth of rain.
  • The US used more than 148 trillion gallons of water in 2000 (the latest year such figures are available from the USGS), and that number includes all water use. That is almost 500,000 gallons per person. That’s enough to fill two Olympic-sized swimming pools (Olympic-sized pool: 164 ft x 82 ft x 6.5 ft deep).
  • Over the past 100 years, much of Florida’s natural freshwater storage areas (swamplands, etc.) have succumbed to urban sprawl so they are now facing water shortages as well. In addition, each year Florida dumps hundreds of billions of gallons of treated wastewater into the Atlantic – water that could otherwise be used for irrigation.
  • In Australia, they are experiencing their worst drought in 1000 years, and there is a good chance that they are going to have to stop irrigation of crops in some areas of the country.
  • This country’s big rush to ethanol, vaunted as a knight in shining armor, is anything but in more ways than one. As an example strictly from a water requirement standpoint, in Oklahoma it takes 2900 gallons of irrigated water to produce just one bushel of corn, and it takes four times that amount to turn it into ethanol. Where is all this water to grow the corn and produce the ethanol going to come from? The “breadbasket” of the US is running on water vapor as it is.

Ethanol: Snakeoil de jour

Putting aside the extraordinary water requirements to grow the corn and produce ethanol, from an energy standpoint it is far from a sound solution, and wasting all the money, time, energy and water on this boondoggle leaves me scratching my head. It’s obvious that it is a “feel-good” pure and simple once you look at the entire picture.

Robert Rapier has a M.S in chemical engineering and has worked in the oil, gas and ethanol industries for his entire career, and he is “…concerned that we are stumbling into the future unprepared for the formidable energy challenges ahead.” In Energy Balance For Ethanol Better Than Gasoline? , he questions the “energy return on energy invested” claims of the USDA.

Let’s do some quick calculations to demonstrate this. A barrel of crude oil contains 5.8 million BTUs (2) of material that will ultimately be turned into gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, etc. It is well-documented that the average energy return on energy invested (EROEI) for crude oil production is around 10/1 (3). Therefore, we will use up about 580,000 BTUs from our barrel getting it out of the ground. The other major input occurs during the refining process, and it also takes roughly 10% of the contained BTUs in the barrel of oil. The total energy input into the process is 1.16 million BTUs [580k BTU’s x 2], and the energy output was 5.8 million BTUs. The EROEI is then 5.8 million/1.16 million, or 5/1.

For ethanol, the USDA study reference above [United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Economic Research Service Report number 814 titled ‘ Estimating The Net Energy Balance Of Corn Ethanol: An Update’ ] showed that for an energy input of 77,228 BTUs, an energy output (when co-products were included) of 98,333 BTUs were generated. The EROEI is then 98,333/77,228, or 1.27/1. The efficiency of producing gasoline is then 4 times higher than for ethanol, which makes sense when you think about it.

Crude oil is a highly energy dense mixture. It is contained in underground deposits, and just needs to be pumped out of the ground. During the refining step, large amounts of water don’t need to be distilled out of the product. Contrast this to ethanol. The corn must be planted, grown, and harvested. Processing must take place to turn the corn into crude ethanol. The crude ethanol is actually mostly water, which must be removed in a highly energy intensive distillation. The final product, ethanol, contains only about 70% of the BTU value of the same volume of gasoline. So it would appear that even without doing any rigorous calculations, producing ethanol would be far less energy efficient than producing gasoline.

Ethanol produces 28% less energy than gasoline, which results in about a 30% reduction in real world mileage. In other words, if your car is designed to run on either gasoline or ethanol, and gets 30 mph on the highway with gasoline, with ethanol you will likely get 21 mph. I have no doubt that engines can be optimized better for ethanol, but it will not come close to making up the 30% real world difference. At best we’re probably looking at a 5% improvement. After extensive testing, the EPA estimates that using ethanol E85 will cost drivers 23% more than driving on regular gas.

There is also a belief that ethanol is cleaner burning, and in pre-1990 vehicles there is a modest improvement, but in vehicles build after 1990 there is little improvement, and the majority of vehicles on the road are 1990 or newer.

Demand for corn to produce ethanol has doubled the price of corn which is in turn hitting those raising livestock such as cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry and that means we are, or will be, paying more at the grocery store. As water resources get more scarce, the price of water will go up as well, and our ethanol folly will drive it up just that much faster.

If ethanol lived up to half the hype, I would likely be on board, but it is an un-solution. What we need is to make a concerted effort to reduce our energy usage across the board (conservation), not just with our transportation, but in all aspects of our lives – a cultural shift. We need to look at real renewable and sustainable solutions such as hydrogen fuel-cells and electric vehicles, solar and wind power, and we need to apply the incredibly talented human resources we have to these problems.

Mankind long ago mastered the art of killing. We need to master the art of living, living in harmony and partnership with all life on earth. We can no longer think of the planet earth as a bottomless candy jar.

Additional sources not cited above:The Future Is Drying UpMuch of U.S. Could see a Water ShortageBiofuel Production Could Lead to Dust BowlThe Great Ethanol HoaxWhat all Presidential Candidates Refuse to Talk AboutHydroelectric Power Forum23% extra fuel cost of using E85 [ethanol] with 2006 models


  1. Sigh … I gave up environmental blogging because the “news” was the same old – same old.

  2. I can sure understand where you are coming from and I know from reading your blog that you were very active at one time. I think this one ends my environmental blogging career.

    And now back to my irregularly scheduled program. 🙂

  3. Oops, Akismet thought you were spam. I had a good talk with it and it should be better now. It seems to be working fine here on my own domain, not like my experience on .com. 🙂

    Thanks for that link brightfeather. I don’t know what is going to happen with all this, but I do know that water is going to become a very large issue in the very near future.

    Here in my neck of the woods, methane drilling is all the rage and it is lowering groundwater levels a an alarming rate. Land owners near methane fields are having their wells go dry and are having to truck water in for their personal needs, and of course they can forget about irrigating their hay or alfalfa crops. Some of it of course is due to the lower precipitation, but the methane drilling is multiplying the problem considerably. It’s a train wreck that we have been warned about, but chosen to ignore.


  4. Hi, Richard. We both must have “water on the brain” lately 😉 . I posted about it on Nov. 1, because in my travels through the web of worldwideness, I came across something I could and would do (about water). I found your discussion of ethanol (snakeoil) illuminating. As in desalination (which I commented on briefly in mine), the resources to produce the finished product are greater than those they’d save. Nevertheless, let us be of good cheer!

  5. Muse, I’ve been accused of having water on the brain more than once. 😉 I haven’t read your post yet, but will stop by shortly. I’m getting ready to head off for a week of drumming and rattling and exploring the spirit worlds at a workshop in northern California and I’m running behind schedule (I’ve got a real problem with schedules; they don’t allow for spontaneity).
    All is well my friend, all is always well.

  6. There are candles still lit in the world, as evidenced by this tribute. It brings me to tears every time.

  7. I made a comment on this entry, but I put a YouTube link in it, so it is awaiting moderation. Letting you know so the spam filter doesn’t eat it. *smile* I think you’ll like the video.

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