USA Today is now on the marketing payroll of NASCAR

USA Today ran a story this weekend by Nate Ryan entitled “Nascar going green, moving to ethanol blend fuel in 2011.” On this blog, we have spent a fair amount of time talking about both the use of buzzwords such as “green” and the pitfalls of biofuels. One post from a couple of years ago debunked the debunking of several ethanol myths while we have also looked into the prospect of biofuels dragging 30 million people into poverty and increasing carbon emissions by 30-fold. Needless to say, this story feels a lot like it is out of early 2008 rather than October 2010.

NASCAR is moving towards a 15% ethanol blend fuel beginning with the 2011 Daytona 500. While this isn’t the only green initiative, it is the one NASCAR would like to be the focus of its PR campaign according to NASCAR CEO and Chairman Brian France:

“When we said we had to accelerate our green efforts, this was a centerpiece,” France says. “It’s certainly the most visible thing we can do.It’s also one of the more difficult things that we do.”

If something as environmentally and socially destructive as corn-based ethanol is the centerpiece of your green efforts, then it’s not a stretch to say you have problems with your plan. The article does make a brief mention of other initiatives such as recycling and LEED certification for new buildings, but the bulk of the text is dedicated to the marketing advantage gained by the change in image.

But the switch to ethanol might be the most important step in achieving an ancillary benefit — attracting new sponsors in the green economy to cash-strapped teams hurting for funding since the onset of the recession.

“If you make a presentation to sponsor your car or race, it’s, ‘Well, tell us what you’re doing about green concerns.’ If you don’t have an answer, that may shut the door for you. They might not have an interest. There are some companies that are going to have budgets set aside exclusively for people that are actively green. There is a smart economical benefit to this.”

For me, the rationale behind having ethanol be the forefront of ‘green’ efforts is pretty clear. Thanks to some clever marketing and lack of real criticism of ethanol in the media, the public generally views it as a good solution. Also, it is a fairly easy and inexpensive switch for NASCAR and requires no huge switchover costs that other process changes may. Altogether this is a pretty inexpensive greenwashing campaign that allows NASCAR to get some free advertising from news sources such as Nate Ryan of USA Today.

One could make the argument that this is a relatively moot point as the prospects for NASCAR becoming a sustainable sport are bleak. I wouldn’t mind seeing some high powered electric cars race around the track, but we would also lose those roaring engines that make it so exciting at times. Like most every other sustainability effort, NASCAR is still in the ‘doing things less badly’ stage. It should get praise for the positive steps taken, but heavily scrutinized for this move.

In the end, my issue is not with NASCAR, but with Ryan. The title “Nascar going green…” is effectively advertising for NASCAR while the message of the article deals with the desired impact of the switch to ethanol on sponsorship. In fact, the author does not seem too concerned about the environmental consequences of a switch to ethanol, leaving that question unresolved:

NASCAR couldn’t provide many specifics about ethanol. France said the move would reduce the carbon footprint of a race (“we’re not exactly certain, but there is a benefit”).

If Ryan truly wanted the focus to be on NASCAR ‘going green’ then he would have investigated this aspect a little bit more to inform readers. If not, then the title should have instead been something along the lines of “NASCAR seeks to attract environmentally-conscious fans and sponsors through ethanol fuel blend.” Of course, that would be expecting a lot out of Nate Ryan and the mainstream media.

CBO Blasts Ethanol

An article published last Thrusday by the Washington Times suggests that federal support for corn ethanol has large negative consequences and a dubious impact on the environment. It seems that the Congressional Budget Office is catching up to the many critics of ethanol (for some of our own criticism of ethanol, feel free to check here). This should be the final nail in the coffin for aggressive corn-based ethanol policies. Continue reading

Ethanol Myths? A Thorough Exploration

Add the US Department of Energy to the growing list of ethanol apologists that insist on jumping aboard a sinking ship. They have an entire webpage devoted to debunking five so-called “ethanol myths”. In our look at each “myth” we will see that with all their resources the best the DoE can do is cast a pebble of doubt into the vast sea of ethanol criticism. As we will see, at times they do everything short of outright lying just to protect the image of ethanol.

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New Biofuel Options

There were two stories in The Times of London this week about organisms that secrete a chemical almost identical to crude oil. As is to be expected, these are not exactly going to drop the price of oil tomorrow. They are more promising than diverting food supplies to our gas tanks, and lack some of the incompatibles that ethanol has with gasoline engines but unless technology makes massive leaps forward, they still won’t do the job. Continue reading

The commodity “bubble” gets bigger

Much talk has been made in recent months about the commodity bubble, and when we will see the prices of oil and corn fall back from their current all-time highs. Not only has the recent rise been attributed to speculation, but market forces were also expected to ease the upward trend. Among these expectations was an increase in oil output in response to record prices and an increased corn yield in response to demand for ethanol and rising meat consumption in the developing world. Unfortunately, supply is tight enough in both markets to make i difficult for this simple solution to come to fruition.
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Dead Zones

US News & World Report story

It seems there is another unintended consequence of the race to get as much ethanol to the market as quickly as possible. According to the article, acquatic dead zones are growing quickly and scientists link this to extensive increases in fertilizer use. As farms scrabble to keep up with food and fuel demand, they have to use more fertilizer than ever before.

These dead zones are said to be hurting yields of the various fishing industries in the Gulf of Mexico. Naturally, fertilizer run off would be an issue even if we weren’t trying to produce ethanol, but the story plausibly suggests that pressure of having to produce food for a growing population and still have leftovers from ethanol is exacerbating the situation. This reflects why human complacency regarding the sustainability of our society is dangerous. Fertilizers have helped increase yields, but if we don’t act now to manage the runoff, the negative impact on fishing may mean that we get diminishing returns in terms of total food production.

Food Summit Addresses BioFuels

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva Waxes Poetic in Support of Brazil’s Ethanol, Other Delegates Less Creative

CNN begins this article by accurately listing some of the most likely causes of the food crisis:

These include rising energy costs, more demand for meat and dairy products from some booming developing countries, trade restrictions and speculation, as well as the demand for biofuels.

The contention, they say has to do most with to which degree each factor contributes to the rise in food prices, particularly some countries and organizations feel that biofuels make up a rather large portion of the crisis. Yet countries like the Brazil, and to an extent the United States, try to downplay the effect of our current pattern of using food crops for biofuels. This divide is less than shocking as Brazil is arguably the leader in ethanol, and the United States are home to a great deal of corn ethanol subsidies. Continue reading