A Pet Peeve and a Hope

It’s a weird one to have, but one of my pet peeves is American corn-based ethanol.  It drives me nuts any time someone, be it a politician, a car company, the corn lobby, or any random stranger on the street encourages it or applauds it as a good idea.  (Yeah, I’m picking on you Iowa and all that special power you get from holding the nation’s first caucus every presidential cycle.)

Corn subsidies and cars made to run on E-85 make me itch.

All other complications such as food supply and agricultural prices aside, I take issue with corn-based ethanol at the root of the problem it’s supposed to solve.  Ethanol is posed as a cleaner-burning alternative to petroleum-based gasoline.  However, it’s a fairly well-known fact that by the time the corn is harvested and processed to make fuel, the additional emissions from the energy put into creating the ethanol basically even out with the emissions put out by the creation and burning of gasoline. In other words, after the sum production and vehicle fuel consumption, total emissions differences between ethanol and gasoline are a wash.

In equation form:

(Emissions from creation of ethanol fuel + emissions from burning ethanol fuel) (Emissions from creation of gasoline from oil + emissions from burning gasoline).

Ethanol fuel works great for the Brazilians who manufacture ethanol from sugar cane.  The sugar cane’s high sugar content means that more alcohol, and therefore more fuel, is produced with similar input quantities versus corn.  For corn, the starch needs to be converted to sugar before it can be turned into fuel as well, taking more time and energy.

For every unit of energy put into producing Brazilian ethanol, 8.3 to 10.2 units of energy are produced. For the U.S., that number is only 1.3-1.6 units of energy obtained.  With that thin margin of energy production, no wonder some ethanol producers are going belly up right now with gas prices low and corn prices high.

So who pays for this futile exercise in creating the biofuel?  The American tax payer.  The most recent numbers I could find stated that it costs about $1.14/gallon to make ethanol, and the government subsidizes that by $0.51/gallon.  Meanwhile, the U.S. keeps a $0.54/gallon tariff on imported ethanol, meaning that we pay more for fuel overall, and we by-in-large will not utilize efficiently produced ethanol.

Rant made, my hope is that the Obama administration and current congress end some of this nonsense.  Government subsidies for promoting clean energy are a great idea, they just need to be invested in other places like wind, solar, and fuel cell energies.  These technologies can produce progress; ethanol isn’t going anywhere.  (Although there is some promise in cellulosic ethanol produced with the cellulose in plant cell walls, depending upon the method by which it is processed.  This is still in testing and not commercially implemented yet.)

The tariffs should be brought down.  There is a lot of demand for corn and other crops that can be grown on that arable land currently used for ethanol feedstock. Crop prices are high. Therefore, I’m not very worried that opening the market to foreign-produced ethanol would deeply hurt corn farmers.

The official Obama/Biden running position sits as this:

Advances in biofuels, including cellulosic ethanol, biobutenol and other new technologies that produce synthetic petroleum from sustainable feedstocks offer tremendous potential to break our addiction to oil.  Barack Obama and Joe Biden will work to ensure that these clean alternative fuels are developed and incorporated into our national supply as soon as possible. They will require at least 60 billion gallons of advanced biofuels by 2030.   They will invest federal resources, including tax incentives and government contracts into developing the most promising technologies and building the infrastructure to support them. – “Barack Obama and Joe Biden: New Energy for America” Energy and Environment Policy Fact Sheet Available here.

That sounds peachy, as long as that money is invested in research and development of NEW fuels, not pumping free cash into mid-western corn coffers.

Some, such as The New York Times, have accused Obama of being closely tied with ethanol interests. He has been cited supporting the tariff on Brazilian ethanol as well as the subsidies given to ethanol producers.  He argues these measures help protect U.S. energy independence.

However, recent actions, such as Obama’s efforts to push along increasing fuel economy standards to meet that of California’s have received criticism from the ethanol industry. The new standards would mean less interest in flex fuel vehicles running E-85 and lower demand for fuel, which leaves the energy producers unhappy.  So maybe Obama isn’t so buddy-buddy with the ethanol lobby as once assumed.

I find that encouraging.  Let’s see what happens next.


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