The Profile: Lend Me Your Ears, Dude

Activist and agitator Tommie Little wants to tell Delaware how to save the world with ethanol. Can it be done?




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Little calls the use of ethanol as an alternative to gasoline “a common sense issue, but wrapped nicely in free enterprise and public need.” photograph by Thom Thompson

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January, 1954, late at night in Parris Island, South Carolina: Marine recruit Thomas L. Little, Serial Number 1464556, is once again crying himself to sleep after a third day under the whip of his drill instructors, Cpl. “Gudnight, ladies” Walden, PFC “Gedouddadarack” Gibbs and PFC “Twitch, and I Shall Have Yer Ass” Bower.

Then, somewhere in the pitch black barracks, Little hears another recruit crying. Then another. And another. “After that, everything was OK,” Little says. “That night, we understood we all felt the same, and we knew we could get through it together.”

“Till I went into the Marine Corps, I didn’t function,” Little says. “The Marine Corps taught me I could do anything I wanted.”

Summer 1980: Little, 45, is at a religious conference at Maryknoll on the Hudson, speaking on the subject, “Can you be a Christian in a capitalist society?” He has recently admitted to himself that he’s an alcoholic, but he’s still tempted by booze.

The cocktail party after the second day of talks sets his hands to shaking. When a priest notices, Little tells him his problem. The priest asks if he’s ever had “a healing in the spirit.” When Little answers no, the priest tells him to kneel, places his hands on Little’s head, prays the Our Father, and asks that Little be given the strength to never taste alcohol again. Little feels “a bolt of lightning” shoot through his head.

“I have never had an anxiety about wanting to drink ever since,” Little says, “27 years, dude.”

June 1994: A priest is administering Last Rites to 58-year-old Tommie Little. He lies on a hospital bed in Namibia, on the Atlantic Coast of southern Africa, where he has been teaching. He is the only survivor of an epidemic of cerebral malaria that has killed 301 people, and the quinine-drip administered to him for four days has failed.

In his coma, Little sees the world “as you would see it from the moon.” And around the Earth is what appears to be pollution. “But what I thought was pollution became words,” he says. “I couldn’t make out all of them but one that stood out was the word ‘love.’ The instant I saw that, I started crying, and I grabbed the priest’s gown. He was in the downstroke of ‘bless me’ when I sat up. Everybody, including the doctor, ran out of the room.”

Little smiles. “I haven’t been the same person since.”

Tommie Little is a lawyer, teacher, former state legislator, former Marine drill instructor, world-class martial artist, inventor of the individual retirement account, lifelong Republican agitator and mystic who, at 71, still calls men “dude” and conducts free lessons in Bushido—“the rigorous disciplined path of a spiritual warrior”—on Saturday mornings in Bellevue State Park.

For most people, eureka moments occur once or twice in a lifetime. For Little, epiphanies seem to lurk around every corner. Right now, ethanol fuel is that epiphany.

Little’s near fixation on this single issue began in November 2005. He had recently returned from Africa, where he had taught for more than 11 years and where, at 62, he married a 17-year-old Afrikaner (a whole other story, as the saying goes). The breakup of that marriage (his second) and the end of his teaching assignment brought him back to Delaware. He was basically broke, working as a laborer when he received a call from an old friend, Terry Spence, speaker of the State House of Representatives. Spence asked him if he would like to “write law” related to energy.

With characteristic alacrity, Little jumped in with both size 9½s, taking up the cause of ethanol-based fuels. He soon organized a Green Team-—more than 200 public officials and influential private citizens statewide—to whom he began firing off email paeans to ethanol, many of them ending with the Marine cry of enthusiasm, “oorah.”

Little, who many years ago was national treasurer of the Young Republicans, asked for and got a meeting with Spence, Republican Party Chairman Terry Strine and other party officials. There, he outlined an energy policy for Delaware, which included, among other things, the idea of renewable fuel for transportation. As a result of that meeting, and at the request of Spence, Little drafted a resolution that became House Concurrent Resolution 70, which established a blue ribbon task force to look into the feasibility of developing an ethanol plant and delivery system in Delaware.

The task force’s recommendation eventually resulted in public hearings, which in turn generated the legislation sponsored by representatives Spence and Joseph Booth, as well as Senate Minority Leader Charles L. Copeland. The legislation, House Bill 34, would establish a $1 million subsidy to convert 10 existing gas stations to pump E85 (a blend of 15 percent gasoline and 85 percent corn-derived ethanol) on a first-come, first-served basis. The legislation calls for three stations in each of Delaware’s three counties, plus one in Wilmington. In the beginning they would service the state fleet (1,057 vehicles) as that fleet comes on line to use E85. At this writing, the legislation is with the Appropriations Committee because of the $1 million price tag.

“This bill triggers the free enterprise system,” says Little. “In addition to the state fleet, these stations would also be available to pump E85 for the general public who wish to use that fuel.”

Little and others who support the legislation believe ethanol offers a possible long-range solution to America’s dependence on foreign oil. At the very least, they say, the $1 million subsidy will help Delaware drivers kick the gasoline habit.

They also believe it will be more environmentally friendly than gasoline and perhaps spur a demand for the state’s first ethanol plant.

(Such a plant seems unlikely in the near future. Nationally, 415 ethanol plants are operating, under construction or planned, according to the Earth Policy Institute. By the end of February, however, the plants were facing rising corn prices and declining ethanol prices, which have followed the lead of crude oil. If profits keep falling, experts say, there will be delays or cancellations of at least some of the plants, especially those that have not yet started construction.)

In endorsing ethanol, Delaware would join a national trend spurred by President Bush’s proposed $2 billion in loans to promote cellulosic ethanol. Bush was here in January to tour the DuPont Experimental Station and hear about the company’s biobutanol work. Made from agricultural products rather than petroleum, butanol, like ethanol, is an alcohol compound, but its different chemical structure gives it several advantages over ethanol. DuPont will introduce biobutanol to the United Kingdom this year as it continues to work on a genetically modified microbe to boost fuel yield from feedstocks.

Little calls ethanol–—specifically, E85——“a common sense issue, but wrapped nicely in free enterprise and public need.”

Not so fast, say some observers. Like most energy-related issues, ethanol is complicated, with far-reaching environmental, economic and political consequences, not all of them positive. Critics include such disparate voices as Green Delaware’s Alan Muller on the left and the Wall Street Journal and Vice President Dick Cheney’s own investment manager, Jeremy Grantham, on the right.

Grantham has called corn-based ethanol “more or less a hoax” when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. “U.S. corn-based ethanol…is merely another U.S. farmer-protection program, made very expensive both directly and indirectly by inflating real agricultural prices,” he recently wrote on his company’s website.

The Wall Street Journal, in a January 2007 editorial, noted that “as an oxygenate, ethanol increases the level of nitrous oxides in the atmosphere and thus causes smog. The scientific literature is also divided about whether the energy inputs required to produce ethanol actually exceed its energy output. It takes fertilizer to grow the corn, and fuel to ship and process it, and so forth. Even the most optimistic estimate says ethanol’s net energy output is a marginal improvement of only 1.3 to one. For purposes of comparison, energy outputs from gasoline exceed inputs by an estimated 10 to one.”     

Muller, long the liberal go-to guy on Delaware environmental issues, warns of Big Oil being replaced by Big Corn. He points out that “fat federal subsidies” helped jump the price of corn by nearly 80 percent in 2006. While that’s good news for corn farmers (and their congressmen), it’s bad news for cattle ranchers and poultry and hog farmers, whose feed costs have risen sharply. Converting the nation’s-—or even the state’s—motorists to ethanol will require “a massive increase in planting of corn” somewhere, Muller says. “That means fields and forests will be devoted to a highly sprayed and chemicaled crop.”

There are other problems, Muller and his fellow critics say. Aside from being less efficient than gasoline, corn-based ethanol is also highly corrosive and damaging to standard engine components such as rubber and brass. This in turn means it can’t be shipped using existing pipelines (being alcohol, it eats the seals), so it must be trucked or sent by barge or train, at least until separate pipelines are built.

Kevin Wade, a systems engineer and project manager for Little’s Green Team, which presented the case for ethanol at the hearings that resulted in HB 34, offers counter arguments.

“Corn is a steppingstone to cellulosic ethanol,” Wade says. “Decades of low crop prices kept American farmers on one form of subsidy or another. The near-term demand for corn will finally allow farmers to get caught up on their bills. Also, the drain on the U.S. Treasury for the pay-to-not-farm programs will finally be ended by the new, healthy ethanol prosperity.” 

Wade further claims that U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows the number of harvested acres has been in decline for decades.

“Since 1950 almost 270 million acres of land in farms has been removed from agriculture,” Wade says. “This decline was due to too much production with not enough buyers for crops. Objections to ethanol based on insufficient acreage ignore the fact that acreage either increases or decreases, is farmed or is idled, according to changing markets and technologies. However, when acres are paved over for malls or converted to housing developments, farmland is permanently lost. And American farmland has been in surplus for years. Anything in surplus sells.”

While conceding that corn must be treated extensively with chemicals, Wade claims that switchgrass, a cellulosic source, needs no chemicals. “Planted once with very limited treatments in its first year of emerging growth, it produces for 10 years,” Wade says. “Those are 10 years with no ag chemicals. There is no better crop for Delaware farmers and Delaware’s environment. It grows like a weed and is indigenous to Delaware.”

As for the assertion that ethanol is corrosive, Wade says, “This is a fear phrase meant to alarm the hearts of the uninformed. It is out of place in any public policy discussion. Among all corrosive chemicals found in your kitchen, basement and garage, ethanol is the least corrosive. I wear rubber gloves when using paint remover or drain cleaner. I wear a smile when pouring whiskey or vodka (ethanol).

“Rather than name the few materials that simply wear out faster in the presence of ethanol, it’s more informative to name the hundreds of materials that are ideal for ethanol. Plastic, in its many forms, is the preferred material. It’s cheap, light in weight and can be assembled without flame welding. This is why ethanol plants are so much cheaper to build than gasoline refineries.”

Arguments and counter-arguments aside, the fact remains that the limited supply and costly distribution system make E85 pricey—about $3.47 a gallon in Delaware last October, compared to gasoline prices of about $2.12 per gallon. What’s more, it can’t be used by standard engines. Of the more than 200 million vehicles registered in the United States, only 5 million are equipped with engines that can handle flexible fuel. Some 5,000 of those are in Delaware. Little claims he could convert the engine of his 10-year-old Chevy Blazer to use flexible fuel for about $200.

Muller, not surprisingly, doubts the cost would be that low. He also calls Little “a cheerleader for something he doesn’t understand.”

Little’s response: “He attended every day of our hearings and added absolutely nothing. He has an audience of about 12 on his website.”

In an earlier time, Little was the type who might’ve challenged Muller to a duel over the remarks. In such an event, the smart money would be on Little, who, even at 71, appears to be “panther quick and leather tough,” to steal a phrase describing Johnny Yuma, a TV hero of his youth. He is still a Marine at heart; a decal with the Marine motto, Semper Fi, adorns the Blazer’s back window, and he has begun attending Corps reunions, enjoying the camaraderie and horseplay. A single grandfather of five, he rents a house in New Castle while teaching business law at a Wesley College satellite. In addition to Saturday morning Bushido lessons, he’s a volunteer assistant coach for his grandson’s wrestling team at St. Edmond’s Academy.

The rest of his time is devoted to his latest epiphany-—E85. He pursues it with all the enthusiasm and creativity he has devoted to his other quests, some of which smack of the apocryphal, others quixotic.

But as one of his oldest friends, Wilmington lawyer Wil Redfearn, says, “Tommie has done a lot more in his life than you and I ever have. And whatever he does, it’s usually for the benefit of someone else. He’s dedicated to helping others without any consideration of monetary rewards. He really does try to make this a better world.”

One can imagine Little’s response: Oorah.




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