Against the Grain: For and Against Ethanol

[Editor's Note: This is a partial transcript of Against the Grain, a radio show hosted and co-produced by C.S. Soong and produced by Sasha Lilley. Against the Grain airs Monday through Wednesday on Pacifica Radio station KPFA 94.1 in Berkeley, Calif. This show originally aired on April 4, 2006, and is available as a podcast from]

C.S. Soong: This country, and the vast majority of its residents, are addicted to petroleum. The problem is not just that we're dependent on a finite resource imported from other countries; it's that the burning of oil, a fossil fuel, emits greenhouse gases and other pollutants, accelerating climate change and endangering public health. So what do we do?

Certainly, cutting the consumption of gasoline ought to be a key part of any sane energy policy. Another part may be replacing petroleum with a more environmentally friendly fuel -- and here ethanol, a fuel derived from plant materials, might be one answer. I say "may" and "might" because developing ethanol as a way of breaking the U.S.'s addiction to oil is controversial.

By that I don't mean that the Right and the Left take opposing positions; even environmentalists disagree about the desirability and viability of ethanol. There's also a scientific debate going on, one that often centers on whether the energy it takes to produce ethanol, to make it, exceeds the energy that ethanol produces.

Joining us to discuss these issues will be two scientists and two environmentalists. Later this hour you'll hear from staffers at the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Energy Justice Network -- they disagree strongly about whether ethanol as a fuel for cars and trucks represents a positive development. We begin with two sides of the scientific debate around ethanol. Alex Farrell is an assistant professor at U.C. Berkeley's Energy and Resources Group and the co-author of a report published in the journal Science entitled "Ethanol Can Contribute to Energy and Environmental Goals." Welcome, Alex. Tad Patzek is a geo-engineer in U.C. Berkeley's civil and environmental engineering department; his research has led him conclude that ethanol is not worth the trouble. Welcome to you, Tad. First let's just define ethanol, so we know what we're talking about. Tad, what is ethanol?

The rest of this episode of Against the Grain is available for download from AlterNet and by as a podcast from

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