Last night's Frontline report on global warming, "Heat," aside from examining America's energy policy responses to climate change, included what can only be described as a one-sided, misleading tirade against America's corn farmers and ethanol industry.
Aside from ignoring or ridiculing the facts and science that demonstrate the environmental benefits of increasing the use of renewable biofuels, Frontline's biased report relied almost solely on the views of ethanol critics. In segments on the coal, oil, electric utility and auto industries, Frontline's report contained interviews with representatives of those respective industries spokespeople for Arch Coal Company, ExxonMobil, American Electric Power, and GM. However, when it came to ethanol, there were no farm or ethanol industry representatives interviewed, although Frontline did use some of the interview with the GM spokeswoman hardly a fair substitute.
The critics included Mindy Lubber, a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official. Lubber has been a long time ethanol critic. Then there was T. Boone Pickens, hardly an ethanol advocate, chosen to talk about the politics of Midwest farmers, as if, there were no politics associated with providing federal support for his wind and natural gas ventures. Other critics included Jeffrey Ball, an energy and environmental editor with the historically anti-ethanol Wall Street Journal and Eric Pooley, a former Fortune editor and current writer at TIME Magazine, which in April published its own attack on ethanol. Lastly, Frontline interviewed two other critics -- Daniel Kammen, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of California at Berkeley and Amy Jaffe at the oil industry funded James Baker Institute at Rice University.
The unfounded one-sided attacks on ethanol questioned ethanol's carbon emissions, reliance on corn as a feedstock and even movement toward cellulosic feedstocks like switchgrass. The report also recycled easily refuted charges about ethanol's impact on food production and prices. But, Frontline, in order to paint a pre-determined picture, provided no opportunity for its audience to hear or see any serious rebuttal, thereby deliberately leaving only a negative impression.
Frontline's highly touted and promoted "investigation" came up short in presenting its audience with the facts. It seems there was an underlying framework which resulted in tarnishing an industry that has not only reduced America's dependency on imported oil and helped put downward pressure on gasoline prices, but also provides far more environmental benefit cleaner air (never mentioned) and lower CO2 emissions (derided) than burning oil (never compared). Further, most recent academic and government studies have demonstrated that increased ethanol production has had a minimal effect on food prices and that higher oil prices, increased worldwide demand, bad weather and other factors have had a much more pronounced impact. Again these facts were no where to be seen or heard on last night's program.
We would like an opportunity to correct the record and meet with you to provide you with some factual information that counters what you have reported as well as more specific comments on last night's report.
Renewable Fuels Association
FRONTLINE's editors respond:
Thank you for your letter, dated October 22, regarding HEAT.
We stand by our reporting.
As you know, we reached out to you and the RFA for information several months ago. But our real interest was to arrange an interview with a major ethanol industry leader and to that end we contacted Archer Daniels Midland directly. This took place early in our process and we had every reason to believe that ADM was going to co-operate. Their representative suggested that CEO Patricia Woertz would be the best person we could interview and, after several phone calls and many emails over a six month period - during which we explained the project, described our approach, and addressed their questions - we had a provisional date for an interview set up. We booked a crew, prepared our notes and were ready to go. But then, suddenly, ADM's rep called and told us two days before the scheduled appointment that they had changed their mind. They told us that they "hadn't worked out what they would say." We asked if we could simply film at one of ADM's refineries, where we could see ethanol being made and talk to workers or managers. Again, the answer was no. We were disappointed
As you know, we succeeded in obtaining interviews with major players in other industries: with Exxon Mobil, General Motors, Arch Coal and America's two largest utilities, American Electric Power and Southern Company among others.
While you charge that our reporting on ethanol was one-sided and misleading, we also want to point out that Beth Lowery, from General Motors, makes a number of points often put forward by advocates for ethanol. Again we are disappointed that ADM, a comparable industry leader to the others we interviewed, declined to participate. For now, we will publish your letter and our response on the website for Heat. In the future we can only hope for a better outcome.
You are scolding Exxon and others for not doing enough for renewable energy. Why not advocate a new federal tax...a very high tax...on oil and coal? This would spur the use of alternatives more than anything but you shy away from suggesting it. Obviously the public would scream and Washington would balk which would reveal the true culprits...the American public. Your program is slanted in the populist way...the consumer is blameless and the evil corporations are the evil behind it all.
FRONTLINE's editors respond:
The final chapter of the two-hour documentary hammers home the point that the American public and the leaders that they elect are key to reversing course and cutting carbon emissions. However, the focus of FRONTLINE's film was an investigation of how the world's largest corporations and governments are responding to global warming. Many of the big energy companies have presented a public image of being innovators in developing alternatives, and have launched multi-million dollar advertising campaigns to tout their "green" efforts, while continuing to put nearly all of their resources behind finding, exploiting, and selling fossil fuels. We thought it was fair to ask them if they were as truly committed to developing alternatives as their public campaigns suggest.With respect to the auto industry, in the last 10 years American car companies have spent a lot of time and money - including more than a billion dollars from the federal government - to develop hybrid, alternative vehicles. To date, none of those concept vehicles have come to market. Again, we thought it important to ask these companies why they haven't done more to develop alternative vehicles and get them to market, despite public pledges to do so.
I am bothered by the comments about this country being arrogant and wasteful because I think the people making these comments do not understand that we need to solve the energy problem in ways that do not reduce our ability to enjoy the use of our automobiles and air conditioners and heating mechanisms, etc.
The American way is to use American ingenuity to enhance our human condition, not to penalize it. The environment is important but our economic crisis cannot be ignored. The comments about this program regarding suggestions about other sources of energy than what was discussed in detail on your program each deserve a separate report on Frontline.
We are in need for an airing of the alternative power producing concepts that go further than your program went, although it was a welcome start. Hope you will refer to these comments on your very excellent program for future followup programs on these topics.
Idaho Falls, ID
Thank you so much for producing this most important and informative film. This is something I wish everyone could see. We all need to be the change that is necessary for our world! And it starts with each one of us.
Rogue River, OR
We should be acting now before it's too late because I want my kids to see the beauty of nature as it was before instead of disasters and death everyday. We should be making cars that run on electricity and use the oils to heat up our homes and make sure that we plant trees at least once a week.
Please listen to what I'm writing to you because I'm 11 years old and I don't want our world to die.
New York City, New York
Global warming is a farce! Slaves of this foolish theory are, by in large, Godless. They will bow down at the alter of trees and dirt and abortion and government. Professing to be wise, they became fools, Romans 1:22.
Too much heat, too much CO2, climate change, too little fuel, too much fuel usage, deforestation, species extinction, etc., etc.... When are you guys going to trumpet the underlying pressure of all these problems - over population? Is it still too politically incorrect to say, "Stop having babies?"
FRONTLINE's editors respond:
As you will see, many viewers have made this very same point in this discussion area.
Huge thanks to Martin Smith and PBS for "HEAT". The message from the US oil & auto giants is clear: Profits first, planet last.
Five years ago, I attended a biodiesel seminar out of curiosity, and was amazed to find that I could make my own fuel for a diesel powered car from waste vegetable oil. I have since done exactly that. Given the enormous carbon emissions generated by burning fossil fuels, biodiesel will never save the planet, but it does make me feel good. Biofuel produced from algae rather than crops is an even better solution, as there is no effect on the food supply.
The ultimate solution, obviously, is the China Option: one child per family. It's not just the carbon footprint, it's the broader HUMAN footprint, the human population, that creates the problem and needs to be reduced. Watching "HEAT", I felt like I was a witness to my own funeral. But thanks anyway.
I am a believer that electric automobile can save us to provide transportation. This may require more nuclear energy to reduce coal usage for electricity. There are trade offs.
I also think there are ways of disposing of the used fuel that are not being looked at.
For now we are stuck, like it or not, with gasoline for fuel. Why then are cars like the Toyota Aygo, which is sold in the United Kingdom, not available to us in the United States? This vehicle can get over 60 mpg and some say 80-90 mpg. I can only see the reason being Big Oil, Big 3 Auto, and Big Lobbied Government not wanting it here, because of the profit loses such a car would produce.
Sounds insane to me.
Paul H. R.
Green Bay, Wisconsin
Bravo on a job well done .
I also felt the ending left one feeling a little hopeless regarding what real and practical solutions may be implemented, and actions taken by ordinary citizens to take responsibility for this crisis we all face.
I realize there are so many aspects that can be further investigated, but I will suggest that we can all can make a real, positive and immediate impact without much economic or political sacrifice by just carefully choosing what foods we eat, and how we design and build our homes and buildings.
Its all about the architecture, the rise of suburbia, and America's appetite. Lets be a little more conservative with any one of those three, and perhaps we can make a reversal within 10 years.
Ancram, New York
In Heat, author of Big Coal Jeff Goodell mentions that potential liability for odorless CO2 seepage into human occupied structures is the many reason that the coal energy industry is not willing to proceed with CO2 sequestration without government indemnification.
In the Los Angeles Miracle Mile area near the La Brea Tar Pits, there was a moratorium on building of a subway line across L.A. and other construction projects, because of methane gas pockets beneath this area that had actually ignited in the recent past.
Now, all new buildings have methane detectors and Congressman Henry Waxman has withdrawn his objection to building a subway through this area because the technology can now safely accomplish this and assure public safety by sealing these sites and installing sensors and alarms to detect the presence of methane.
One would think this could also be accomplished by the coal industry if they were really serious about "clean coal" production of energy. However, one is left with the impression that the coal industry, like the nuclear industry before it, seeks government indemnification to shift the responsibility away from them, since, like the automobile industry, they have really failed to comprehend the reality that we all face for failure to deal with this critical issue in a non-negotiable timely manner.
Los Angeles, CA
I just watched your program on the climate change and the failure of governments & big corporations in bringing a positive climate change. I very much appreciate your interviews with senior executives of oil and auto companies.
Every week when I fly into Newark airport, I can see at least 20-25 empty baseball and football grounds, with their flood lights switched on. Can someone explain the reason behind keeping the huge energy consuming lights switched on in empty stadiums?
My point is, even before criticizing the governments and big businesses, we should be responsible at the local community level and we should change our attitude towards energy consumption at a personal level and be more responsible local citizen to start with.
Keep up the good work you have been doing.
Jersey City, NJ
I found your program 'HEAT' on the issue of global warming to be the most comprehensive documentary covering all aspects of global warming, the politics, the economics and the solutions.
Martin Smith, your correspondent, gave great justice to global warming. He exposed the disingenuous responses of industrial leaders but two that stood out for me, as a follower of the auto and energy industries, was his interview with the Beth Lowry of GM and Sherri Stuewer of Exxon-Mobil.
Martin went to the heart of the matter with Lowry when she was pressed on why they didn't develop electric hybrids when the taxpayers had invested $1 billion in the project and GM had a concept car called the Precept. The US government practically handed it to them only to walk away from the technology and let Toyota and Honda swoop in to corner the market.
The second interview with Exxon-Mobil was telling of their true position on global warming. Martin pinned down Exxon-Mobil's Sherri Stuewer on whether her company's support of groups like the Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, two major global warming denier groups, were a mistake. He pressed her further when she stated Exxon-Mobil made the best decision at the time even though the man's contribution to global warming was well understood.
Kudos to Frontline and Martin Smith for a job well done.
You did a great job pointing out the failures of big business and government. But I think you really missed the boat by failing to provide a section that focused on the responsibility that we all have as individuals in curbing global warming.
Politicians are not going to do the right thing when it is unpopular. And car makers are not going to build clean, smaller cars unless they know people will buy them.
Ultimately, global warming is the result of our individual lifestyles. Ultimately this is our problem. Ultimately, nothing will change unless we each make individual lifestyle changes and demand that our leaders support corresponding policies.
Thank you for a terrific overview of the challenge of climate change policy making and our energy future making. I will be ordering the DVD for my teaching at Brandeis and my visiting teacher role in the local public schools.
Let me give you an idea for an encore: there is a full hour follow up to be made now on the emissions due to diet, meat, oil, the endless Farm Bill debates, and related topics. Call it the Farm/Fuel/Food connection. HEAT touches on this connection with your look at corn ethanol and other biofuels, but there's a big story still to be told about what we eat and how farmers and livestock feed lots make what we eat. You could start with the book out by the FAO, "Livestock's Long Shadow" (2006). The recent article by Michael Pollan in the NY TImes Magazine, "Farmer in Chief" would be reading #2. I have a long reading list if you're interested!
West Newton, MA
I was disturbed by the selectively deficient and seemingly biased segment about the French "loving" their nuclear power. A simple Googling of "France, anti-nuclear protests" demonstrates what inaccurate PR hype this claim is. To balance this view I suggest people examine the following links and reach their own conclusions:http://www.sortirdunucleaire.org/index.php?menu=english&sousmenu=presse&page=index&limite=0http://www.softcom.net/webnews/wed/cj/Afrance-nuclear-protests.RvLu_HMH.htmlhttp://goliath.ecnext.com/coms2/summary_0199-2538133_ITMhttp://www.terradaily.com/2004/040117200955.c9nsaixt.htmlA self-fulfilling prophecy is a far cry from a love affair. Since the French nuclear system was imposed by government mandate; and since so many French have grown up knowing little or nothing else as an alternative; is it any wonder that this conclusion is reached? It is not a conclusion to be trusted, since it was manipulated from the get-go. FRONTLINE can do better than falling for this (il-)logic trap.
FRONTLINE's editors respond:
FRONTLINE does make this very point in the film. Jeffrey Ball of The Wall Street Journal points out in our report: " (Nuclear power in) France did not happen simply because someone decided that they like nuclear energy. It happened because the government decided it was going to impose a strict policy, and it followed through with that policy much to the consternation of a lot of consumers and environmentalists over decades. But, that takes immense political will. And it is not clear that other countries are going to follow." Since that policy was mandated by the government, polls do indicate that over the years, the majority of the French people are quite satisfied with getting their electricity from nuclear plants.