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'To Catch a Predator'

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

I can't stand this show. Don't get me wrong, I think pedophiles are the lowest of the low! However, I don't think entrapment is necessarily the correct way to go about stopping them. Here's a very interesting article from Rolling Stone magazine on the topic.
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'To Catch a Predator': The New American Witch Hunt for Dangerous Pedophiles

From Issue 1032

VANESSA GRIGORIADIS

Posted Jul 30, 2007 9:40 AM

No one is home at this house on the Jersey Shore -- no one, that is, except a very cute and horny fourteen-year-old. Her parents went to Atlantic City for the weekend, she is telling guys online, and she wants to get laid. Dozens of men are now making their way to the house, hoping to get lucky with an underage kid. One hopped on a motorcycle for the six-hour drive from Pennsylvania; another grabbed a train from New York in a SpongeBob SquarePants jacket, armed with a bottle of K-Y Jelly. One by one, they pull up to this white-shingled, weather-beaten house at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, with no cars in the driveway and the window shades drawn. A mailman stuffs some bills into the shark-shaped mailbox next door, pulling open its door of tiny white teeth.

This, as the men will soon discover, isn't just a house: It's the set of the Dateline NBC show To Catch a Predator, the ratings phenomenon that zooms into America's living rooms to humiliate sexual perverts. The program's gotcha! moments are like those on any reality show; who can forget the time they made a bespectacled twenty-year-old come over naked for sex play with some Cool Whip? Except Dateline sends people to jail and claims a high-minded purpose: warning the American public about what it calls a "growing national epidemic."

To transform a house into a giant flytrap for sexual predators, it takes more than forty people, many of whom are hanging out in the living room on this Friday afternoon. There's the face of the operation: host Chris Hansen, a blond Dateline correspondent, discussing helicopter trips to more glamorous assignments with his producer. There's the eyes of the operation: Mitchell Wagenberg, a spy for hire wearing a long, skinny braid down to his butt, presiding over seventeen cameras hidden in dried-flower wreaths and the toaster. And there's the body of the operation: Casey, a sexpot college student and aspiring dancer in tight jeans who is playing jailbait decoy today because her landlord dad owns this house. (Added bonus: Local prosecutors wrote her college a note so she could get out of a chemistry test.)

Casey gabs to potential predators on the phone. "Come on over, we're not going to get caught," she says. "If we got caught, I would get into trouble, and everybody would call me a slut, and I don't want that, either. I'll pay for your gas. It's no big deal, trust me. My dad gave me plenty of money for the weekend." When the guy fails to take the bait, her voice rises in pitch. "OK, fine, whatever, lame. L-A-M-E. You're being a baby. I told you I've done it a million times!"

None of these people, however, are the brains of the operation. Those, appropriately enough, are located upstairs, in the house's third-floor attic. For the Dateline sting, the space has been converted into the warren of Perverted Justice, a secretive citizenry of seventy-five predator-fighting zealots determined to save children from the long-term scars of sex abuse. The group is an assortment of Genesis-loving fatsos from Texas, introverted copywriters from Wisconsin, and New York nightclub doorgirls, with a dedicated core of West Coast anarchist tech geeks and gamers in their twenties and thirties. For those downstairs, To Catch a Predator is just a TV show; for those upstairs, hunting predators is both the coolest online game they've ever known and a life calling. Many members of Perverted Justice use pseudonyms, keeping their real names secret even from one another. One of the few who know their true identities is their elusive leader, Xavier Von Erck, a twenty-eight-year-old libertarian and atheist who kills on Civilization IV.

It's getting late, and the four top-ranking members of Perverted Justice here in the flesh -- Del Harvey, Frag, Pibb and Don Pedro -- are arranged around computers and video monitors balanced on the attic's chairs and beds, eagerly awaiting their afternoon prey. "Friday night, baby -- hookup central!" says Del. At twenty-five, she's a computer geek's fantasy female: androgynous, beautiful, pierced, with comprehensive musical knowledge and a house overrun by pet Maine coons and an iguana. One of her favorite shirts features two cars crashing into each other under the symbol CTRL+Z. "Get it?" she asks excitedly. "It's a car crash, and Control-Z is the command for undo!"

Del pecks madly at her keyboard, coordinating the thirty-five volunteers who are working on this sting remotely. They chat with men on Yahoo!, AOL and MySpace about topics such as "have u ever given a bj b4?" and "do you have thick or thin pussy lips?" In the past few days, PJ members posing as young girls and boys have chatted with nearly 300 men. About thirty will actually show up at the house this weekend. A few guys are scheduled to appear soon -- a salesman, a printing-press operator and a college student who has revealed that his uncle is a captain at a nearby police department.

Suddenly Frag leans toward his IM screen, which is scrolling rapidly with news from far-flung PJ members. "We got one -- Ikeman!" he exclaims. "Ikeman coming from the south, in a blue Chevy Impala. He's bringing wine coolers!"

Everyone turns their attention to the camera following the Impala as it disgorges Ikeman, a.k.a. John Donnelly, a handsome twenty-one-year-old who is wearing a striped sweatshirt and a look that's equal parts sexual anticipation and terror. Casey runs outside to meet him, taking a seat in a chair on the beach. He approaches slowly.

"Where are the wine coolers?" she asks.

"I was going to get them after I met you because I was so paranoid," Donnelly says, looking around. "Man, I was just worried about this shit because I never met anyone under eighteen." He scrutinizes a couple passing by. "I guess there are no cops around, so it's cool."

"Yeah," says Casey, smiling. "You can see there's no one here."

He rubs his head. "I'm just worried that it's some crazy scheme," he says. "It's just like what you see on the news --"

"I don't watch the news!" she says, snickering.

"Well, I don't watch the news either," he says. "But you know on Comedy Central's Daily Show, they make fun of the news, but it really is the news, right? And I heard there's cops who pretend they're girls and shit like that." He laughs as his body finally relaxes, like a cat finding a patch of sun. "I guess everything's cool," he says.

Just then, Chris Hansen streaks toward him, a camera crew not far behind.

The degree to which things are about to get uncool for Donnelly is amazing to contemplate. Twenty-eight men are caught in the bust, and the local prosecutor's office brings charges against all of them. If they're convicted, their sentences for attempted sexual assault will range from five to ten years in prison.

In direct response to the high-profile success of To Catch a Predator, laws against online predators have become increasingly hostile: Internet solicitation of a minor is now a crime in a majority of states, regardless of whether an actual minor is involved. By 2009, at least 600,000 of the country's convicted sex offenders -- including those who, like Donnelly, never met an actual minor -- will be required by a new federal law, the Adam Walsh Act, to be listed on a national registry of sex offenders. There, on easy-to-navigate maps for the entire country, their photos and home addresses will appear next to categories such as aliases, sentence and "computer used." Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch even thanked Perverted Justice for "directly impacting" the law's passage.

Twenty-four states now forbid sex offenders from living near a host of public places -- including schools, parks, day-care centers and bus stops -- effectively shutting them out of many cities. Florida and Oklahoma require some sex offenders to submit to GPS monitoring for the rest of their lives. Ohio lawmakers even tried to pass a bill in 2005 to force sex offenders to sport pink license plates on their cars, but pressure from Mary Kay cosmetics, whose logo is pink, stymied the plan. This year, legislators are trying again with fluorescent-green plates.

This is much to the glee of Perverted Justice, which views child sex abuse as a vastly underrated evil, one deserving of harsher punishment. "I'm just a guy working within the Constitution to make the world a better place, using my freedom of speech to chat with individuals on the other end of the screen name," says Frag. "How much more gratifying does it get than finding guys who are about to molest children and putting them in jail? Not many Americans have that."

In reality, though, the stings conducted by Perverted Justice are essentially designed to circumvent the Constitution. Police departments are largely overtaxed in the area of Internet crimes, and since Dateline reportedly pays Perverted Justice $100,000 per sting, the group is able to provide its services to the cops for free. In many ways, it is a subcontracted police force, with Del and Frag even deputized by local cops for one Dateline sting. But because its members are private citizens, their actions are impervious to charges of entrapment. Casey's come-on at the New Jersey house is not unusual: Perverted Justice tries to talk predators who have decided against a date into changing their mind, making calls in calming, baby-girl voices to men who are having second thoughts.

While some police departments enjoy the publicity that Perverted Justice brings, many in the criminal-justice field aren't so sanguine about the group's tactics. "We can't let anyone who wants simply become law enforcement," says Mike Iacopino, co-chair of a task force on sex offenders assembled by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "This is no different than letting a guy with a six-shooter walk around protecting your hometown." Indeed, many child-protection agencies express a disapproval of Dateline. "We've seen numerous cases that would constitute entrapment, and then Chris Hansen shoves a camera in these guys' faces and they end up convicted on the basis of the camera confession," says Brad Russ, director of training for Internet Crimes Against Children, a federally funded task force that declined to partner with Dateline. "The whole thing is a perversion of the way the criminal-justice system is supposed to operate."

There is something undeniably disturbing about watching a delicate law-enforcement operation being orchestrated by a group of citizens hellbent on revenge -- and anonymous ones at that. (During a Dateline sting in Texas, one alleged predator committed suicide while cameras waited down the street from his house.) In addition to the seventy-five "high-security-clearance" members who form the core of Perverted Justice, another 45,000 people have signed up for the group's online forums, where anyone can puff up their chest and play deputy dog. Despite warnings by the group, these nameless volunteers have made harassing phone calls to predators and mailed flyers to local businesses outing sex offenders. In addition, they post their own "investigations" under a section called "Human Shields." Perverted Justice also posts the pornographic material that predators have sent to decoys -- Webcam photos of their penises, videos of themselves masturbating -- alongside their first names and hometowns, thus disseminating the very perversions it fights.

Even more disturbing, anti-predator stings involving decoys may actually outnumber crimes involving real victims. On an early episode of To Catch a Predator, Dateline estimated that there are 50,000 predators online at any moment -- a number the show pretty much made up out of thin air, though that didn't stop Attorney General Alberto Gonzales from citing it as fact in a speech last year. But a study conducted by the University of New Hampshire estimated that there were fewer than 2,900 arrests for online sexual offenses against minors in a single year. What's more, only 1,152 involved victims who were approached by strangers on the Internet -- and more than half this number were actually cops posing as kids.

Perverted justice started out as a hobby. You could call it Stupid Pedophile Tricks -- Internet geeks have long pretended to be young girls and boys in chat rooms and then turned the tables on unsuspecting guys ("u be the nurse"; "I jam the thermometer down the head til you feel it touch your pelvic bone"). In 2002, Von Erck, at the time a tech for a TurboTax-like computer program, and Frank Fencepost, a thirtysomething tattoo artist and motorcyclist, began playing tricks in chat rooms in Portland, Oregon. Fencepost took things to another level, telling guys to come over with Taco Bell and pizza, then meeting them at the door with a raised baseball bat.

"Innocence is a very precious commodity, and it's in our interest to preserve a kid's as long as possible," says Fencepost. "There's nothing finer than the feeling when some bastard who thought he was about to 'score big' with a ten-year-old gets the surprise of his life: my face on his monitor, my voice on his phone and, in a figurative sense at least, my shit in his mouth."

Fencepost and Von Erck posted the logs of these chats, attracting a dozen others who wanted to get in on the fun. This new group increasingly took its tricks offline, bullying alleged predators with sinister phone calls. One PJ member who calls himself Antiperv said he posed as the principal of a local elementary school. "I'm having a 'Get to Know You Better Day,' and I'd like to have you come down and piss on all the kids," Antiperv told his victim. "Talk to us about the best liquids to drink to get a good yellow piss, and, if time permits, allow the children to piss on you." They also made inflammatory calls to the families, neighbors and employers of predators. "It's important to be very explicit in your calls," says a former member. "Once a predator is incarcerated, you can call the prison and say, 'This particular prisoner wanted to make a thirteen-year-old girl eat dog food while he fucked her in the ass.' One can assume that would stick in a guard's head."

But in 2004, Von Erck and Fencepost had a falling-out over tactics. "Xavier became much more oriented toward getting pedophiles arrested rather than just making them complete social pariahs in their neighborhood," says Fencepost. A Detroit broadcast on Von Erck caught the attention of Hansen, a smart reporter known for using hidden cameras, who took the idea to Dateline in 2004. All told, Perverted Justice has helped arrest about 250 men with the show, nabbed 200 more in other stings and scared straight hundreds of others. In a move that whitewashed the group's prior bullying and abusive tactics, Von Erck has wiped all traces of early chats, including Fencepost's, from the Perverted Justice Web site. Earlier this year, he deleted entries from his personal blog as well, upset that journalists had located them and quoted some of his writing: "I wish I could fucking kill 9/11 conspiracy theorists. Yes, kill. I'd like to kill them. . . . I want you to die. I wish you would die. Why don't you die? Just die." For a while clicking on his blog brought up a message addressed to "lazy idiots who aren't that bright." The subject line read, "You'll have to do some work now."

For a group devoted to exposing those who hide behind online anonymity, the masterminds behind To Catch a Predator are only sporadically accountable themselves. Perverted Justice didn't respond to my e-mails for nearly two weeks, claiming that my account had blocked its return messages because the "perverted" in their URL was registering as pornographic. NBC, for its part, refused to provide any phone numbers for New Jersey predators, citing a "standards and practices" provision that bars it from sharing unpublished news-gathering. And a particularly disaffected former member of Perverted Justice left me a vaguely threatening voice message: "The reason I'm calling is one of the things that makes PJ cultlike is I spent some time wondering if you are who you said you were or a PJer trying to see what they could find out about me. I spent a half-hour poking around, I found out you and your husband are thirty-three years old, and he's been arrested in California for something minor, and you and I went to the same school. . . . Also, you post too much information about yourself on the Web. I wouldn't add to it. I just wanted to let you know I had that thought."

The predators themselves were incommunicado as well. I searched for more than a hundred men busted by Perverted Justice and found only eleven with listed numbers, all of whom were terrified -- worried about being evicted from their homes, losing their jobs, even becoming targets of random violence. (One study shows that as many as one in two sex offenders experience some form of harassment by strangers.) I sat behind a noisy waterfall in a vegan restaurant with one Dateline predator and in a banquette with high seat backs in a Mexican cafe with another, and they were still worried about who was watching them. "Maybe I'm paranoid, but I've got good reason to be paranoid," wailed one. A divorced father of two started to weep: "I love Dunkin' Donuts, but I won't go in anymore. I'm so scared of the first encounter with someone I know who has seen me on TV."

Although To Catch a Predator fosters the belief that child molesters are largely violent and untreatable, sex offenders actually have the lowest rearrest rates of all convicts. According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, only five percent of convicted sex offenders re-offend in three years, and studies show that fewer than one in four commit another sex crime in fifteen years. Men who rape women are more likely to return to their old ways than pedophiles who molest girls.

What's more, Perverted Justice's tactics may actually make the threat of child sex abuse worse instead of better. While the group has caught dangerous predators who eluded other law-enforcement methods, ninety percent of the men busted on To Catch a Predator have no rap sheet, and few have any sort of sex offense on their record. By whipping up public frenzy about online strangers, Perverted Justice diverts attention from the real source of child sex abuse: relatives and acquaintances. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, ninety-three percent of perpetrators of child sexual abuse are known to the child. "The focus on 'stranger danger' makes most people less suspicious of those they know," says Jill Levenson, a leading sex-crimes researcher at Lynn University in Florida. "And that could make it easier for known abusers to fly below the radar."

What Perverted Justice leaves in its wake are a lot of disturbed men with deep psychosexual problems whose national humiliation robs them of any real chance of re-entering society. Wesley Brannen, a twenty-five-year-old carpenter from San Bernardino, California, who was busted by the group, was released in January after eighteen months in prison. At six-one and 265 pounds, he looks like a white-boy gangster: shaved head, Vandyke beard, red plaid shirt. His parole officer is making him wear a GPS bracelet, but Brannen looks on the bright side. "The good thing is that not only child molesters wear these things, but gang members too," he says. "So I figure people will think I'm in a gang."

At first, Brannen speaks softly, talking about how he has slept with only four women in his life. He says he even wrote Perverted Justice an apologetic letter. But soon he's bursting with a toxic mix of anger and bravado. "These thirteen-year-old girls don't look like thirteen-year-olds no more!" he says. "Man, when I'm off parole, maybe I'll get a woman from Peru -- one who doesn't speak English, so she won't ask about my past."

As he talks, Brannen drives aimlessly around San Bernardino in his Lexus. His dad and mom both live too close to schools, so Brannen is staying at a halfway house in the hills. Though he's clean now, he used to be a meth addict who made his living scamming credit cards. He hit on Perverted Justice's thirteen-year-old decoy, he says, only because he had just returned home from a weekend smoking meth with some girls at a roadside motel and was still hot and bothered when he got on Yahoo! chat. "I was thinking to myself, 'This ain't right,' but I was so spun everything was off-kilter," he says.

After a while, Brannen reveals that he was molested by an older man when he was seven. "For so long I carried that around," he says, "like it was my fault that he did that to me." Deep down, he wanted revenge and became obsessed with searching for registered sex offenders online. "If a guy did something serious, like molest a young kid, I'd try to get the homeboys to go over there and clean out the guy's house," Brannen says, stroking his beard. "Now I'm in the same situation myself, and I'm worried about who is going to come get me."

In recent weeks, it has started to seem like Perverted Justice may have overstayed its welcome on the national stage. For the first time, its tactics are starting to backfire. A district attorney in Texas recently refused to prosecute twenty-four men busted by Dateline, citing insufficient evidence, and the city manager who put together the sting was forced to resign in disgrace. NBC also got rid of the show's producer, who retaliated with a suit alleging that she became a target when she expressed reservations about the ethics of the show. NBC denies that claim, but a source within the network says that the days of To Catch a Predator, unpopular with advertisers, are numbered: NBC plans to phase out the show after four more stings.

None of this bothers Xavier Von Erck, whose obsession launched the franchise. "Hey, the TV show could go away tomorrow, and it doesn't matter to me," he says. "Perverted Justice will still do what we do, roll how we roll."

Von Erck, whose nickname is X, is sitting in a bookstore cafe in Portland, dressed all in black. He looks a little like Philip Seymour Hoffman, five-eleven and round all over. He wears tinted eyeglasses and walks with a limp because he spends so much time at the computer that his eyes are now light-sensitive and his leg muscles have seized up. In a way, he's an odd doppelganger for Brannen, another guy who seems childlike but wants to be a gangster.

Though he wasn't molested himself, Von Erck felt robbed of his childhood by his father and legally changed his name from Phillip Eide to eradicate the last vestiges of his paternal namesake. "My dad was an alcoholic scumbag commercial fisherman who hit my mom," he says. "She left him when I was one, and he went on to impregnate ten more women up and down the West Coast. His name is garbage." As a teenager, the only thing that brought Von Erck back to a state of innocence and wonder was the computer -- until he decided that the online world was teeming with sex offenders. "I was so into the computer," he says. "I went into chat rooms thinking it was going to be utopia, and it was dystopia."

It's easy to see how Perverted Justice resembles a game to Von Erck. Intentionally enigmatic himself, he demands utter transparency from predators and Perverted Justice members, like a junior-high-school kid playing D&D who always wants to be the dungeon master so he can control every aspect of the game. He guards his power closely, requiring members to give him their entire Internet history (all screen names, all pages joined) and going to war with "stupid" people who dare to criticize Perverted Justice. He exacted a particularly sadistic form of revenge against Bruce Raisley, a software developer from Arkansas who launched an aggressive anti-PJ crusade. Posing as a woman named Holly, Von Erck began an online flirtation with Raisley, who was smitten enough to leave his wife and rent a new apartment. On the day Raisley went to pick up Holly at the airport, Von Erck sent a friend to snap his photo and posted it with a warning: "Tonight, Bruce Raisley stood around at an airport, flowers in hand, waiting for a woman that turned out to be a man. . . . He has no one. He has no more secrets. . . . Perverted-Justice.com will only tolerate so much in the way of threats and attacks upon us."

Here, after all, is the point of Perverted Justice: to destroy and vanquish, to re- establish utopia, both online and off. With or without To Catch a Predator, the man known as X is onto the next stage of the game, taking on even bigger prey than horny guys who stalk young girls. Von Erck's new obsession is what he calls "corporate sex offenders" – online sites that don't do enough, in his view, to rein in the pedophiles who use their services. MySpace is exempt from the campaign -- since March, at the request of PJ, it has removed more than 3,000 predators from its site and forwarded their addresses and online profiles to the police. But Von Erck is mobilizing his thousands of followers to write letters to companies advertising on LiveJournal and YouTube, demanding they withdraw their support.

"Corporations have a choice about having the pedophile community use their service and upload videos on their sites," he says. "People want to know if you're responsible on this issue."

Von Erck looks out into the distance, imagining a world in which every predator has been ferreted o ut and cyberspace is his again. "When it comes to the Internet, pedophiles got there first," he says. "It's a check game, where they make one move and we try to check it. But slowly but surely, we're catching up."


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Excellect article from Rolling Stone about ethanol

Ethanol Scam: Ethanol Hurts the Environment And Is One of America's Biggest Political Boondoggles

From Issue 1032

JEFF GOODELL

Posted Jul 24, 2007 1:36 PM

The great danger of confronting peak oil and global warming isn't that we will sit on our collective asses and do nothing while civilization collapses, but that we will plunge after "solutions" that will make our problems even worse. Like believing we can replace gasoline with ethanol, the much-hyped biofuel that we make from corn.

Ethanol, of course, is nothing new. American refiners will produce nearly 6 billion gallons of corn ethanol this year, mostly for use as a gasoline additive to make engines burn cleaner. But in June, the Senate all but announced that America's future is going to be powered by biofuels, mandating the production of 36 billion gallons of ethanol by 2022. According to ethanol boosters, this is the beginning of a much larger revolution that could entirely replace our 21-million-barrel-a-day oil addiction. Midwest farmers will get rich, the air will be cleaner, the planet will be cooler, and, best of all, we can tell those greedy sheiks to fuck off. As the king of ethanol hype, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, put it recently, "Everything about ethanol is good, good, good."

This is not just hype -- it's dangerous, delusional bullshit. Ethanol doesn't burn cleaner than gasoline, nor is it cheaper. Our current ethanol production represents only 3.5 percent of our gasoline consumption -- yet it consumes twenty percent of the entire U.S. corn crop, causing the price of corn to double in the last two years and raising the threat of hunger in the Third World. And the increasing acreage devoted to corn for ethanol means less land for other staple crops, giving farmers in South America an incentive to carve fields out of tropical forests that help to cool the planet and stave off global warming.

So why bother? Because the whole point of corn ethanol is not to solve America's energy crisis, but to generate one of the great political boondoggles of our time. Corn is already the most subsidized crop in America, raking in a total of $51 billion in federal handouts between 1995 and 2005 -- twice as much as wheat subsidies and four times as much as soybeans. Ethanol itself is propped up by hefty subsidies, including a fifty-one-cent-per-gallon tax allowance for refiners. And a study by the International Institute for Sustainable Development found that ethanol subsidies amount to as much as $1.38 per gallon -- about half of ethanol's wholesale market price.

Three factors are driving the ethanol hype. The first is panic: Many energy experts believe that the world's oil supplies have already peaked or will peak within the next decade. The second is election-year politics. With the first vote to be held in Iowa, the largest corn-producing state in the nation, former skeptics like Sens. Hillary Clinton and John McCain now pay tribute to the wonders of ethanol. Earlier this year, Sen. Barack Obama pleased his agricultural backers in Illinois by co-authoring legislation to raise production of biofuels to 60 billion gallons by 2030. A few weeks later, rival Democrat John Edwards, who is staking his campaign on a victory in the Iowa caucus, upped the ante to 65 billion gallons by 2025.

The third factor stoking the ethanol frenzy is the war in Iraq, which has made energy independence a universal political slogan. Unlike coal, another heavily subsidized energy source, ethanol has the added political benefit of elevating the American farmer to national hero. As former CIA director James Woolsey, an outspoken ethanol evangelist, puts it, "American farmers, by making the commitment to grow more corn for ethanol, are at the top of the spear on the war against terrorism." If you love America, how can you not love ethanol?

Ethanol is nothing more than 180-proof grain alcohol. To avoid the prospect of drunks sucking on gas pumps, fuel ethanol is "denatured" with chemical additives (if you drink it, you'll end up dead or, at best, in the hospital). It can be distilled from a variety of plants, including sugar cane and switch- grass. Most vehicles can't run on pure ethanol, but E85, a mix of eighty-five percent ethanol and fifteen percent gasoline, requires only slight engine modifications.

But as a gasoline substitute, ethanol has big problems: Its energy density is one-third less than gasoline, which means you have to burn more of it to get the same amount of power. It also has a nasty tendency to absorb water, so it can't be transported in existing pipelines and must be distributed by truck or rail, which is tremendously inefficient.

Nor is all ethanol created equal. In Brazil, ethanol made from sugar cane has an energy balance of 8-to-1 -- that is, when you add up the fossil fuels used to irrigate, fertilize, grow, transport and refine sugar cane into ethanol, the energy output is eight times higher than the energy inputs. That's a better deal than gasoline, which has an energy balance of 5-to-1. In contrast, the energy balance of corn ethanol is only 1.3-to-1 - making it practically worthless as an energy source. "Corn ethanol is essentially a way of recycling natural gas," says Robert Rapier, an oil-industry engineer who runs the R-Squared Energy Blog.

The ethanol boondoggle is largely a tribute to the political muscle of a single company: agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland. In the 1970s, looking for new ways to profit from corn, ADM began pushing ethanol as a fuel additive. By the early 1980s, ADM was producing 175 million gallons of ethanol a year. The company's then-chairman, Dwayne Andreas, struck up a close relationship with Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, a.k.a. "Senator Ethanol." During the 1992 election, ADM gave $1 million to Dole and his friends in the GOP (compared with $455,000 to the Democrats). In return, Dole helped the company secure billions of dollars in subsidies and tax breaks. In 1995, the conservative Cato Institute, estimating that nearly half of ADM's profits came from products either subsidized or protected by the federal government, called the company "the most prominent recipient of corporate welfare in recent U.S. history."

Today, ADM is the leading producer of ethanol, supplying more than 1 billion gallons of the fuel additive last year. Ethanol is propped up by more than 200 tax breaks and subsidies worth at least $5.5 billion a year. And ADM continues to give back: Since 2000, the company has contributed $3.7 million to state and federal politicians.

The Iraq War has also been a boon for ADM and other ethanol producers. The Energy Policy Act of 2005, which was pushed by Corn Belt politicians, mandated the consumption of 7.5 billion gallons of biofuels by 2012. After Democrats took over Congress last year, they too vowed to "do something" about America's addiction to foreign oil. By the time Sen. Jeff Bingaman, chair of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, proposed new energy legislation this spring, the only real question was how big the ethanol mandate would be. According to one lobbyist, 36 billion gallons became "the Goldilocks number -- not too big to be impractical, not too small to satisfy corn growers."

Under the Senate bill, only 15 billion gallons of ethanol will come from corn, in part because even corn growers admit that turning more grain into fuel would disrupt global food supplies. The remaining 21 billion gallons will have to come from advanced biofuels, most of which are currently brewed only in small-scale lab experiments. "It's like trying to solve a traffic problem by mandating hovercraft," says Dave Juday, an independent commodities consultant. "Except we don't have hovercraft."

The most seductive myth about ethanol is that it will free us from our dependence on foreign oil. But even if ethanol producers manage to hit the mandate of 36 billion gallons of ethanol by 2022, that will replace a paltry 1.5 million barrels of oil per day -- only seven percent of current oil needs. Even if the entire U.S. corn crop were used to make ethanol, the fuel would replace only twelve percent of current gasoline use.

Another misconception is that ethanol is green. In fact, corn production depends on huge amounts of fossil fuel -- not just the diesel needed to plow fields and transport crops, but also the vast quantities of natural gas used to produce fertilizers. Runoff from industrial-scale cornfields also silts up the Mississippi River and creates a vast dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico every summer. What's more, when corn ethanol is burned in vehicles, it is as dirty as conventional gasoline and does little to solve global warming: E85 reduces carbon dioxide emissions by a modest fifteen percent at best, while fueling the destruction of tropical forests.

But the biggest problem with ethanol is that it steals vast swaths of land that might be better used for growing food. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs titled "How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor," University of Minnesota economists C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer point out that filling the gas tank of an SUV with pure ethanol requires more than 450 pounds of corn -- roughly enough calories to feed one person for a year.

Thanks in large part to the ethanol craze, the price of beef, poultry and pork in the United States rose more than three percent during the first five months of this year. In some parts of the country, hog farmers now find it cheaper to fatten their animals on trail mix, french fries and chocolate bars. And since America provides two-thirds of all global corn exports, the impact is being felt around the world. In Mexico, tortilla prices have jumped sixty percent, leading to food riots. In Europe, butter prices have spiked forty percent, and pork prices in China are up twenty percent. By 2025, according to Runge and Senauer, rising food prices caused by the demand for ethanol and other biofuels could cause as many as 600 million more people to go hungry worldwide.

Despite the serious drawbacks of ethanol, some technological visionaries believe that the fuel can be done right. "Corn ethanol is just a platform, the first step in a much larger transition we are undergoing from a hydrocarbon-based economy to a carbohydrate-based economy," says Vinod Khosla, a pioneering venture capitalist in Silicon Valley. Next-generation corn- ethanol plants, he argues, will be much more efficient and environmentally friendly. He points to a company called E3 BioFuels that just opened an ethanol plant in Mead, Nebraska. The facility runs largely on biogas made from cow manure, and feeds leftover grain back to the cows, making it a "closed-loop system" -- one that requires very few fossil fuels to create ethanol.

Khosla is even higher on the prospects for cellulosic ethanol, a biofuel that can be made from almost any plant matter, including wood waste and perennial grasses like miscanthus and switchgrass. Like other high-tech ethanol evangelists, Khosla imagines a future in which such so-called "energy crops" are fed into giant refineries that use genetically engineered enzymes to break down the cellulose in plants and create fuel for a fraction of the cost of today's gasoline. Among other virtues, cellulosic ethanol would not cut into the global food supply (nobody eats miscanthus or switchgrass), and it could significantly cut global-warming pollution. Even more important, it could provide a gateway to a much larger biotech revolution, including synthetic microbes that could one day be engineered to gobble up carbon dioxide or other pollutants.

Unfortunately, no commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants exist today. In one venture backed by Khosla, a $225 million plant in central Georgia is currently being built to make ethanol out of wood chips. Mitch Mandich, a former Apple Computer executive who is now the CEO of the operation, calls it "the beginning of a real transformation in the way we think about energy in America."

Maybe. But oil-industry engineer Robert Rapier, who has spent years studying cellulosic ethanol, says that the difference between ethanol from corn and ethanol from cellulose is "like the difference between traveling to the moon and traveling to Mars." And even if the engineering hurdles can be overcome, there's still the problem of land use: According to Rapier, replacing fifty percent of our current gasoline consumption with cellulosic ethanol would consume thirteen percent of the land in the United States - about seven times the land currently utilized for corn production.

Increasing the production of cellulosic ethanol will also require solving huge logistical problems, including delivering vast quantities of feedstock to production plants. According to one plant manager in the Midwest, fueling an ethanol plant with switchgrass would require delivering a semi-truckload of the grass every six minutes, twenty-four hours a day. Finally, there is the challenge of wrestling the future away from Big Corn. "It's pretty clear to me that the corn guys will use all their lobbying muscle and political power to stall, thwart and sidetrack this revolution," says economist C. Ford Runge.

In the end, the ethanol boom is another manifestation of America's blind faith that technology will solve all our problems. Thirty years ago, nuclear power was the answer. Then it was hydrogen. Biofuels may work out better, especially if mandates are coupled with tough caps on greenhouse-gas emissions. Still, biofuels are, at best, a huge gamble. They may help cushion the fall when cheap oil vanishes, but if we rely on ethanol to save the day, we could soon find ourselves forced to make a choice between feeding our SUVs and feeding children in the Third World. And we all know how that decision will go.

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U.S. Sen. Stevens' home searched by FBI


Here's a very interesting article from the Associated Press
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U.S. Sen. Stevens' home searched by FBI

By MATT APUZZO, Associated Press Writer
1 hour, 2 minutes ago

Federal agents searching the Alaska home of Republican Sen. Ted Stevens appeared particularly interested in cases of wine stored in the senator's house, an attorney briefed on the raid said.

Investigators photographed the cases and the individual bottles Monday along with other items from Stevens' home as part of a public corruption investigation that stretches from Alaska to Washington.

Stevens, 83, is under a federal investigation for his relationship with Bill Allen, an oil field services contractor who was convicted this year of bribing state lawmakers. Stevens was aware for some time that investigators wanted to search the house, the attorney said Tuesday, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case.

Allen oversaw a 2000 renovation project that more than doubled the size of Stevens' home in the ski resort community of Girdwood. Allen is the founder of VECO Corp., an Alaska-based oil field services and engineering company that has reaped tens of millions of dollars in federal contracts.

Contractors said they submitted bills to Allen, then received checks from Stevens. The senator has said he paid for all the improvements himself.

Agents from the FBI and Internal Revenue Service started their search at the senator's home Monday afternoon, said Dave Heller, FBI assistant special agent. He said he could not comment on the nature of the investigation.

About 15 agents took photos and video of various angles of the structure, climbing onto the roof at one point, and eventually entered. They later carried out a garbage bag full of unidentifiable materials and loaded it into an unmarked white van. The curtains were drawn during most of the search.

A law enforcement official familiar with the case confirmed the raid on Stevens' home was focused on records related to the ongoing VECO investigation. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke only on condition of anonymity.

Investigators did not raid Stevens' home in Washington, where he spends most of his time.

An e-mail statement issued by Stevens through his Washington, D.C., spokesman said federal agents had alerted his attorneys that they wanted to search his home.

Stevens, who has been in office since 1968 and is the longest-serving Republican in Senate history, said the interests of justice would be best served if he commented after the investigation.

"I continue to believe this investigation should proceed to its conclusion without any appearance that I have attempted to influence its outcome," Stevens said. "The legal process should be allowed to proceed so that all the facts can be established and the truth determined."

Located 40 miles south of Anchorage, Girdwood is nestled in a valley next to Mount Alyeska and has evolved from a gold mining town into Alaska's only year-round resort community.

Congressional watchdog groups called for Stevens to step down — at least temporarily — from his posts on the Senate's Commerce and Appropriations committees.

"There is growing evidence that Sen. Stevens may have used his powerful perch on the appropriations committee to direct tens of millions of dollars of earmarks to benefit family, friends, business partners and former staff," said Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. He commented in a letter to the Senate's Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

McConnell has not said whether he would ask Stevens to temporarily relinquish his committee assignments.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a liberal watchdog group, called it "imperative that no member under federal investigation be involved in the oversight or appropriations of any agency involved in investigating that member."

The group referred to Stevens' membership on the Appropriations subcommittee that funds the Justice Department.

The Justice Department's probe into Allen's relationships has led to charges against state lawmakers and contractors. Last year, FBI raids on the offices of several Alaska lawmakers included Stevens' son, former Alaska Senate President Ben Stevens.

Neither the U.S. senator nor his son has been charged.

___

Associated Press writer Dan Joling in Anchorage, Alaska, and James Halpin in Girdwood, Alaska, contributed to this report.

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