Ethanol mandate fails economically and environmentally

corn-1I was very surprised to see an Associated Press article on the front page of the November 12 Arizona Daily Star titled “Benefits of ethanol dubious, not worth cost, enviros say.” I agree. The online version of the article is titled “The secret, dirty cost of Obama’s green power push.”

The story begins: “The hills of southern Iowa bear the scars of America’s push for green energy: The brown gashes where rain has washed away the soil. The polluted streams that dump fertilizer into the water supply.”

Some other excerpts: “…the ethanol era has proved far more damaging to the environment than politicians promised and much worse than the government admits today…As farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they wiped out millions of acres of conservation land, destroyed habitat and polluted water supplies…Five million acres set aside for conservation — more than Yellowstone, Everglades and Yosemite national parks combined — have vanished on Obama’s watch.”

EPA mandated use of ethanol as a partial substitute for gasoline was supposed to decrease our oil imports and be more environmentally friendly. But like many green fantasies, the program has failed on both counts (I think “EPA” more aptly stands for Extreme Political Activists).

While the mandate may be a boon to corn growers, especially large agribusiness, it is not cost effective for end users. Currently, seasonal gasoline is 10% ethanol, but E85 (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline) was being touted as a solution to our dependence on foreign petroleum sources. That was before the shale oil/gas revolution.

Ethanol contains less energy than gasoline. Consumer Reports (Oct., 2006) tested E85 in a 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe FFV (flexible fuel vehicle). CR found that E85 delivered 27% lower mileage compared to gasoline in the same vehicle. The Tahoe traveled 300 miles on a tank of E85 compared with 440 miles on gasoline, so you will have to fill the tank more often with E85, making it more expensive and less efficient.

A new studyby Michigan State University economist Soren Anderson says in part: “Federal law requires increasing volumes of renewable fuels to be blended with the nation’s fuel supply. This year (2012), the requirement includes the use of more than 13 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol nationwide. Ethanol is more expensive to make than gasoline and must be sold at a loss or subsidized unless consumers are willing to make up the difference. If our goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, this is quite a costly way to go about doing it.”

Corn ethanol, produced in any quantity to make a difference in oil imports, will take massive amounts of land, destroy habitat and forests, and threaten our food supply. It takes 1,700 gallons of water to produce one gallon of ethanol, according to a Wall Street Journal report of a Cornell study. A studyfrom Virginia Polytechnic Institute found that “the most water-efficient energy sources are natural gas and synthetic fuels produced by coal gasification. The least water-efficient energy sources are fuel ethanol and biodiesel.” A study by the University of Calgary questions the ethics of burning a food crop for fuel. It also notes that the required land use change results in a net increase of greenhouse gases. Ethanol produced from sugarcane rather than corn has also been touted as a solution. However, a studyhas shown that when all production steps are taken into account, the greenhouse gas emissions from sugarcane ethanol are higher than those from burning fossil fuels.

Cellulosic ethanol has been touted as an alternative to corn- or sugar cane based ethanol production. But that too seems economically non-viable. Recently, we learned that a cellulosic ethanol plant in Georgia has failed. The project raised $320 million, largely in the form of federal, state, and local subsidies, but the plant never produced a drop of ethanol. Nor did the factory ever hire the 50 to 70 permanent employees its promoters had promised. This shows, again, that the government is incompetent at picking economic winners.

Use of ethanol for transportation fuel has not reduced our petroleum imports. According to the Energy Information Administration, between 1999 and 2009, U.S. ethanol production increased seven-fold, to more than 700,000 barrels per day. During that period, however, oil imports increased by more than 800,000 barrels per day.

Burning ethanol-gasoline blends produces more ozone and hence smog which creates a health hazard.

Burning a food crop for fuel has had some very detrimental effects on health. A report by Dr. Indur Goklany, writing in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons (Volume 16 Number 1, Spring 2011), estimates that at least 192,000 excess deaths and 6.7 million additional Disability-Adjusted Life Years lost to disease have been caused by using food crops to make ethanol for fuel. These deaths have been mainly in third world countries where the rise in price of food staples or the loss of availability of food puts people over the edge. In these cases, being green is fatal.

Goklany’s report cited two studies using World Bank and World Health Organization data. Both studies covered 90% of the developing world’s population and “both indicate that higher biofuel production increases global poverty, even in the longer term.” See the full study here:

While use of ethanol may have seemed like a good idea at first, there are too many unintended and detrimental consequences. Closer scrutiny shows it fails on too many levels to ever be considered as a viable alternative to fossil fuels. The rational thing to do would be to dump the program altogether, but many Mid-western farmers (and Agribusiness) have come to depend on it. Perhaps the program would need to be phased out gradually. That will take political will, which seems in very short supply these days.