By on April 18, 2007

wfbfcom.jpgYesterday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez did something unusual: backpedal. The South American Bush basher “clarified” his opposition to an agreement between the U.S. and Brazil to promote ethanol production. Chavez claimed he objected to the development of corn-based ethanol– not Brazilian sugar cane-based ethanol. Echoing last month’s interminable diatribe by Fidel Castro, Chavez condemned America’s energy policy, declaring that "taking corn away from people and the food chain to feed automobiles is a terrible thing."

According to Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, it doesn’t matter which organic source you use for ethanol production. Speaking at a two-day South American energy summit, da Silva rejected any notion of a food–fuel conflict. "The problem of food in the world now is not [a] lack of production of food. It's a lack of income for people to buy food… No one is going to stop planting rice to plant biofuels."

Perhaps. But one thing is for sure: America’s newfound love for ethanol is creating some major political and economic side effects.

Here at home, U.S. farmers are planting corn like crazy. And why not? This year’s ethanol subsidies will easily eclipse the $6b Uncle Sam doled out in ‘06. This despite the fact that corn-based ethanol take a great deal of energy to produce– from petrochemical-based fertilizers and pesticides to processing plants hooked into their local electricity grid to gasoline powered tractors and delivery trucks. In fact, it takes a lot of old-fashioned energy to create ethanol, and millions upon millions of gallons of water.

In any case, the rapid increase in American ethanol production is having a worrying impact on America’s food supply. Even though the “ethanol boom” has swelled American cornfield acreage from 78 to 90 million acres, federal ethanol mandates are still driving up prices. With corn futurologists eyeing the six billion gallons of corn-based ethanol slated for production this year, the price of corn has risen dramatically.

The price of beef, pork, poultry, breakfast cereal, Coca-Cola and other corn-based products are set to rise accordingly. This situation is not about to get any better. In January, President Bush set a goal of 35 billion gallons of domestically-produced alternative fuels by 2017. While companies are spending billions to try to figure out how to produce fuel from cellulosic (plant) waste, corn is still king. If U.S. corn-based ethanol production doubles or triples, corn prices will skyrocket.

Or not. Ironically enough, at the same time that corn prices are rising, ethanol prices are declining. If the margins disappear, so will the “ethanol boom.” No wonder there’s already a federal tariff on imported sugar cane-based ethanol– which President da Silva is lobbying the Bush administration to abandon. Given the corn-growing states’ political influence in Washington, there’s not much chance of that happening anytime soon. 

Nor is there likely to be any change in the policy allowing automakers to calculate their E85-compatible vehicles’ mileage based on an entirely theoretical fuel economy (you try and find an E85 pump). Just as federal ethanol mandates inflate corn prices and distort the market, the E85 loophole inflates automakers’ CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) numbers and violates the spirit of the law. Oh, and supports the sale of gas guzzlers, which increases our dependence on foreign oil. Oh, and a Stanford University study published today suggests that increased ethanol use would harm the ozone layer. 

Meanwhile, American ethanol demand has diverted surplus (i.e. federally subsidized) corn from foreign export. The change is causing food price inflation as near as Mexico, and as far away as China and India. While you could argue that the U.S. doesn’t “owe” foreign countries a vast supply of cheap corn, the political fallout isn’t good. Castro’s theme– the Yankees care more about running their SUVs than feeding the poor– is no boon to U.S. foreign policy.

Ironically, America’s ethanol push is based on a desire to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, to free the country from the necessity of undesirable political entanglements. American ethanol production could inadvertently alienate more of the world’s population than the war in Iraq.

In fact, the whole alternative fuels policy is full of such bizarre contradictions. Environmentalists who embraced biologically-derived ethanol as a “clean” alternative to carbon-based energy would do well to consider the enormous rainforest destruction caused by Brazil’s ethanol industry. The current rate of deforestation will have a more profound effect on greenhouse gasses than the planet’s vehicular emissions. 

The contradictions inherent in America’s ethanol production highlight the need for a comprehensive U.S. energy policy. If the U.S. is going to find a way to manage the political, environmental and economic implications of our energy production, delivery and consumption, we need to take a rational and independent look at ALL the alternatives– from Alaskan drilling to nuclear power to corn-based ethanol production. Otherwise, greed and hypocrisy will stymie any effort– however noble– to create any genuine change.

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78 Comments on “South American Ethanol Debate Highlights Alt Fuel Insanity...”


  • avatar
    Sajeev Mehta

    The price of beef, pork, poultry, breakfast cereal, Coca-Cola and other corn-based products are set to rise accordingly. This situation is not about to get any better.

    Maybe the increase in demand for Ethanol will finally get high fructose corn syrup out of everything we eat. That’s more than enough reason for me to back E85.

    Interesting article.

  • avatar
    troonbop

    The food price issue is going to be a major ethical concern for people advocating ethanol.
    BTW, there’s a whole lot of oil sands up in your friendly neighbour to the north, eh?

  • avatar
    Vega

    There’s another harmful sideeffect: Making Bioethanol from corn is a big waste of drinking water. Processing alone uses a water volume 4-6 times the volume of ethanol fuel produced. Add to that the amount of ground water polluted through heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides and the whole picture looks disastrous. Considering many countries are already using fossile water resources to cater for their consumption, this is a desaster waiting to happen, with a potential for international or civil conflicts much greater than oil is currently causing (mainly in the middle east).

  • avatar

    As a home-brewer of WVO based bioDiesel, all I gotta say is “keep eatin’ those french fries people!”

    –chuck

  • avatar
    Glenn A.

    Ethanol truly sucks. In the literal sense. I’ve tried E10 in virtually every car I’ve owned since 1979 and have found that the ethanol is entirely wasted, or worse (7% to 25% reduction in MPG from 10% ethanol). Not forgetting that ethanol production takes as much as 70% of it’s overall energy in OIL to produce, not to mention four times as much water as ethanol in the production process (at least, corn-based ethanol does). NOT GOOD, to use an understatement.

    It seems reasonable to say that the oil companies and OPEC must LOVE our imbicilic government mandated fixation on corn based ethanol.

    Instead of this idiocy, try looking at the possibility of making oil from garbage, offal and sewage. http://www.changingworldtech.com

    This is the way we need to consider going. As well as electric cars powered by wind and sun (for commuter cars).

  • avatar
    cgraham

    Very good article. I am all for fixing the world, but lets not trade the devil we know for the devil we don’t. There are few things in life I can’t stand and one of those things are uninformed people standing on a soap-box, rhyming off facts that have no backing and mis-quoting reports, to prove a point. Common topics which seem to be of intereset to such people are: that Windmills/solar power is THE answer, that the car companies already know how to produce a more fuel efficinet car but refuse to because they are in bed with the oil company, and that Ethenol will allow me to keep my 10mpg SUV.
    Turn off your air conditioning
    Unplug your stove, fridge, washer, dryer, dishwasher
    Stop heating your house
    Now, go ahead and point your finger at me.

  • avatar
    richard whitman

    According to a recent article in a well known Chemical journal the energy expenditure for corn based ethanol is 1 bbl oil yields 1.35 bbl ethanol. The figure for sugar cane based ethanol is 1 bbl oil to 8 bbl ethanol.This is because the Brazillians have 40 years of research optimizing their processes with sugar cane while we have none in corn based ethanol. In a free , unsubsidized market, Cuba, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama , Louisiana and Florida would be the low cost producers of ethanol.

  • avatar
    Yuppie

    I agree with most of this article, but…

    “In fact, it’s entirely possible that it takes more energy to produce corn-based ethanol than it releases when it’s burned.”

    That’s always true unless we are talking nuclear energy. If the amount of energy released when a fuel is burnt/used is greater than that used in its production, the world will have an endless supply of energy. Not going to happen; law of thermodynamics.

    With regard to the quote, the real issue should be “HOW MUCH MORE” energy production v. release when compared to other fuels, e.g., petroleum-based products.

  • avatar
    SuperAROD

    I find it hilarious that people will bash ethanol with a large country sitting over there in S. America running almost entirely off of E85, and completely weaned of foreign oil. It took Brazil 30 years to get to that point. We have only SERIOUSLY been doing ethanol for what 18 months?

    Ethanol may not be the end all, be-all, but it is part of the solution. Give it another 2 years and see where we are at. Another 5.

    Richard also had a good point about 40 years of research. Does anyone in here seriously think that 5 years from now, absolutely ZERO advancements will be made in the production of ethanol? That the amount produced per bushel will remain static? Heck, there are already cellulosic plants being built as we speak. And there are plants coming on line that use methane from cow manure to power their plants.

    Give me a break. Plus anyone that takes anything Victor Psycho Chavez says seriously needs to have their head examined. He is a complete and utter nut job, who is turning Venezuela into a Communist dictatorship. Liberals may hate GW Bush, but he is elected and term limited and will be out of office in 18 months. Chavez is a psycho who will only let go of power when they pry it away by force.

  • avatar

    Ethanol fueled engines is simple, pure and complete idiocy.
    Unless you’re in a country where things grow the moment you put them in the earth, I guess.
    I’ve seen lots of different figures, but it appears that in Northern climes one unit of energy gets you 1.38 units of Ethanol energy. Makes absolutely no sense. Maybe as a supplement to other fuels, but it’s still not making much sense, given the downsides of it …

    And I am well aware that the Brazilians are happy, but there you can actually watch the plantlife grow inches while you’re busy downing a drink.

  • avatar
    Alex Dykes

    SuperAROD, the problem is that cor based ethanol production is many times less efficient than sugar cane based ethanol production. As a result there is not enough arable land in N. America to meet the current demand if we switched to 100% ethanol. If we could grow sugar cane in the planes states, it would be a more feasible matter, unfortunately the climate is less than topical.

  • avatar
    AKM

    Interesting article. I second Richard here. If the US stopped subsidizing corn ethanol, it would be an economic boon for South America and for US consumers and tax-payers. Instead, the government is just creating another bubble, which will eventually burst.
    cgraham: good point. Any changes in energy consumption will have to come from many different sources, not only cars.
    I remember seeing this article in Fortune where the daughter of Ted Turned had a huge “eco-manor” built that consumed very little energy. However, it was calculated that the energy spent building that house would offset any gains for 40 years compared to the building and energy consumption of a regular 3-bedroom house, let alone an energy-efficient 3-bedroom house.

    Germany starts to have more and more E85 gas pumps, and so do other European countries. I do not know where their ethanol comes from, though.

  • avatar
    dolo54

    Here is a nice study to round out the debate. Now my feeling about studies is based on the study that claimed that 50% of all studies are eventually proven false. While using surplus corn or other crops to make fuel is probably ok, subsidizing the industry to create more surplus is crazy. And yes we need to stop using corn syrup in everything. I hate that stuff… did you know it’s almost impossible to find bread that doesn’t contain corn syrup? bleah!

  • avatar
    philbailey

    And according to Asociated Press, this date, more Americans will die of smog related diseases when ethanol becomes commonly used.

    “It’s not green in terms of air pollution,” said study author Mark Jacobson, a Stanford University civil and environmental engineering professor. “If you want to use ethanol, fine, but don’t do it based on health grounds.”

  • avatar
    whitenose

    we need to take a rational and independent look at ALL the alternatives– from Alaskan drilling to nuclear power to corn-based ethanol production

    It’s been done. Turns out that Ethanol is corporate welfare, a big subsidy to agribusiness, and no matter how much corn we produce, it won’t ever be enough to meet more than a small percentage of our energy needs.

    Same for drilling the tundra. We cannot replace our middle east oil imports with domestic sources. There isn’t enough of it. ANWR in particular is not worth the political football that it’s become. Yes, Exxon will tell you otherwise. Exxon is not noted for honesty.

    Spending that money on subsidizing solar panels and wind turbines would achieve a lot more in the long run; the upfront investment would pay off continuously for 30 years or more.

    The presently available energy sources that make sense are wind, solar, possibly geothermal, and yes, modern nuclear plants, if you can figure out how to neutralize the waste. Solar requires a big upfront investment, but the cost is coming down as more manufacturing capacity (and materials research) comes on line. There are more exotic energy sources in the pipeline, but that’s what we can do today, this minute, given the political will to do so, if we want.

  • avatar
    Drew

    I find it hilarious that people will bash ethanol with a large country sitting over there in S. America running almost entirely off of E85, and completely weaned of foreign oil.

    This is wrong. According to the CIA world factbook CIA world factbook page for Brazil Brazil’s oil production is 1.59 million barrels per day. Their oil consumption is 2.1 million barrels per day.

    Hardly free of oil. Brazil also recently opened a new offshore oil platform. Brazil gets its ethanol from sugarcane which is much more sugar-rich than corn and so provides more ethanol per acre.

  • avatar

    @whitenose

    It’s been done. Turns out that Ethanol is corporate welfare, a big subsidy to agribusiness, and no matter how much corn we produce, it won’t ever be enough to meet more than a small percentage of our energy needs.

    I totally agree. Politicians eager to funnel money to agribusiness found out there were no objections when they claimed it was for green energy, and the public and media bought it.

  • avatar
    whitenose

    dolo54: tell me about it, my wife can’t shop at most regular grocery stores because everything is spiked with HFCS. I don’t know where you are located, but Publix bakeries have HFCS-free bread, and Trader Joe’s products don’t have HFCS, thank Joe.

    First step for obesity reduction in the USA: banning HFCS. Second step: nationalize agribusiness. They can’t exist without government subsidies? Fine, then they’re Amtrak and we should treat them accordingly.

  • avatar
    Drew

    Let me expand on my previous post a bit, since this is an area that I’m passionate about and happen to be fairly knowledgeable in:

    Brazil is not comparable to our situation. Claiming so is like saying that ‘Iceland gets a lot of it’s energy from geothermal – that could work for us too.’

    Brazil uses 4.2 barrels of oil per year per person. The US uses 27. The US produces about 11 barrels of oil per year per person compared with Brazil which produces about 3.3.

    So, Brazil needs to produce 0.9 barrels of oil equivalent of ethanol per person per year to have energy independence. The US would have to produce 16 barrels of oil equivalent of ethanol per person per year to have energy independence. Our population is about 50% larger than that of Brazil as well. So, in order for us to be energy independent by using ethanol, we would have to produce about 26 times as much ethanol as Brazil does.

    If the US had the same per-capita oil consumption as Brazil we wouldn’t need to do anything. We’d be awash in domestically produced oil.

    And all of this ignores the issue of energy balance. It takes a lot of petroleum to make ethanol. Here’s the process in a nutshell:

    1. Plant corn using an oil-powered tractor

    2. Apply petroleum-based fertilizer to the ground to get the corn to grow

    3. Harvest the corn with an oil-powered tractor

    4. Use a huge amount of natural gas to distill ~8% ethanol from ~92% water.

    5. Ship it by truck or railcar (no pipelines) to a refinery to be blended with gas.

    At best we may be able to reduce oil use by about 20% under this scheme. Energy independence? Not even close.

    Also, ethanol has about 2/3 the energy density of gasoline. So, your E85 car will get worse mileage than it will on gas. Oh, and ethanol is more expensive than gasoline too. Imagine the outcry when people find out that they will have to fill up more often and at higher prices.

    So, ignoring for a moment that we can’t possibly grow enough corn to switch the entire nation to E85, should we even if we could?

    No. Instead of all of this we would be better off burning the corn to heat our houses and driving natural gas powered cars rather than inefficiently converting oil and natural gas to ethanol.

  • avatar
    miked

    I’m not going to argue whether it’s a net energy gain or loss to make corn based ethanol, as we really don’t know. Lots of good scientists (that I know personally) are still trying to figure that one out. I will argue, however, that adding ethanol in our fuel isn’t as bad as everyone is saying. For one, the government does two things (related to farming) right now that are a huge waste of money and resources: 1) They pay farmers not to grow corn. 2) They buy corn from farmers and dumb it in the ocean. Both of these farm subsidies are in place due to the huge farm lobby to keep the corn prices artifically high. So if we stop paying farmers not to grow corn and more importantly for those that actually do grow corn, if we don’t buy it and dump it in the ocean we can make ethanol without impacting the food chain anyway. If we’re going to spend the energy and time to grow corn to dump, why not atleast get something out of it by turning it into ethanol.

    As stated in the article: we’re not going to run out of food. Our issue isn’t production, it’s distribution. For example: the US grows enough food to feed probably all (or atleast 1/2) of Africa, but the warlords there make distribution impossible. So if we can’t get the food out there, lets at least make some fuel out of it.

    And one more point. If for some reason we do start to mess with the food supply, there’s a fairly easy solution: Genetically Modified crops. I know hippies get into a frenzy when they talk about “frankenfood” that comes from GM crops, and I’m not going to argue about the safety of eating GM crops (although I DO think it’s perfectly safe). What about just using GM crops to turn into fuel? Simple safe modifications to corn, wheat, grass, etc. can easily increase yield by an order of mangitude. So why not take adavante of that.

    I’m not advocating that we invest lots of energy to grow our fuel and change our whole infrastructure. I’m just advocating taking technology that we currently have and using what we normally throw away to make a small dent in our oil requirements. The marginal cost here would be near 0 to increase our fuel supply. Even if it’s a very small increase, the marginal cost is still 0 to do it.

  • avatar
    SunnyvaleCA

    SuperAROD,

    I, like you, am all for giving science a chance with ethanol. Please note, however, that since the 1970s the US government has decided to bless ethanol as the predominant solution to the country’s transportation situation. We have: huge dollars in research, price subsidies, import tariffs, and a guaranteed market including perks for car-makers to produce vehicles capable of running E85 (even if those vehicles run less efficiently on the stuff).

    Brazil doesn’t run “entirely off of E85″ at all. Most of Brazil’s energy independence was achieved in two ways: vastly less energy intensive lifestyle and offshore drilling for oil. If only US citizens consumed as much fuel per person as Brazil’s citizens–we would be oil self-sufficient! As for ethanol, Brazil substitutes only something around 30% of its gasoline with ethanol and large vehicles still run oil-based diesel. Also, Brazil has the land, water, and climate to produce sugarcane; the three magic ingredients are missing in the US.

    The world hasn’t been “doing ethanol for what 18 months.” Large research projects started in the 1970s. The government has been promoting ethanol since the 1970s–first as a replacement for gasoline during the 1970s energy turmoil but then as an oxygenate and competitor/replacement for MTBE. The government has been subsidizing, promoting, and protecting ethanol for more than 30 years.

    “Ethanol may not be the end all, be-all, but it is part of the solution. Give it another 2 years and see where we are at. Another 5.” I think ethanol is focusing the country in a direction that is *NOT* part of the solution. It is giving people hope and an excuse to continue down a path of ever-increasing energy consumption. Primary research into ethanol production is just fine, but commercialization isn’t justified by the current level of science. Instead, put all the money into fundamental research of a variety of possible solutions, don’t favor any solution until it proves itself, and see where it all shakes out.

  • avatar
    freude am fahren

    What made Brazil independent of foreign energy last year was a large offshore oil field coming on line. Brazil is a major producer of hydrocarbons. They do produce a lot of ethanol and a lot of biodiesel but they are not plain old oil independent.

  • avatar
    bfg9k

    whitenose:
    The presently available energy sources that make sense are wind, solar, possibly geothermal, and yes, modern nuclear plants, if you can figure out how to neutralize the waste.

    Nuclear waste is an already-solved issue, if the US would once again start reprocessing high-level waste into fuel and using (for example) breeder-type reactors. Neither of these approaches is used due to concerns about nuclear proliferation, and indeed the US gov killed the Integral Fast Reactor project in 1994 due to these concerns.

    All US reactors currently use a once-through fueling design, where nuclear fuel is reacted once, then set aside as waste. I think it is inevitable that this situation will change, given the foolishness of the Yucca Mountain repository, global warming, and energy insecurity.

  • avatar
    Steve_S

    The problem is we should have 30 years of research in it already. Nothing was done in the 70’s after the oil embargo and we are paying the price now. We need a comprehensive energy strategy that focuses on development of alt fuels, solar absorption, wind power, batteries etc. The government should not be dictating what the alternative is to fuel with subsidies but they should be providing vast grants for research. Perhaps they could if we had not go into Iraq.

    As far as not giving the world cheap corn? I say F’em, America has done and still does too much for other countries. When there are no more homeless and hungry in America, when we have paid off all our deficit then we can give some back to other countries not before. Good think I’m not president as I’d would rapidly pull back aid and troops from most of the world. Your two-bit country falls apart? Not our problem. You have something we want and are an economic partner (like Japan) then great we’ll work together; otherwise you are not our problem. We are not the world’s police force, you take care of your own laundry before washing someone elses.

  • avatar
    SuperAROD

    As I stated in my comments, Ethanol is PART of the solution. Brazil is an example of how Ethanol can help fuel energy independence. The U.S. has dabbled in ethanol since the 1970s, but only after Katrina did we get completely serious about it and unleash the free market on it. Ethanol production grew exponentially in 2006 and will do so again in 07. Private money is pouring into Ethanol faster than John Kerry can change his mind. Advancements in production an output will follow.

    What I am sick of is NIBMY environmentalists who want us to stop driving Hummers and live in huts while they fly around in their corporate jets and live in houses that consume 20 times the normal amount of electricity.

    NIMBY environmentalists who block Nuclear and coal-fired powerplants then block Wind powerplants because they may mess up part of their lovely views off from their mansion’s in Martha’s Vineyard.

    NIMBY environmentalists who are against oil consumption, yet bash and are attempting to stop the production of an alternative, renewable fuel that is benefitting farmers all over the country. Ethanol is becoming readily available, is a current technology, with infrastructure in place and building rapidly. It is the easiest way for us to start reducing our foriegn oil diet.

    Do the NIMBY environmentalists have ANY answers, other than to tell everyone else how to live their lives?

    NOPE.

  • avatar
    Jim H

    Out of curiosity, why do so many folks bring up 100% conversion or nothing? Have we ever dealt with 100% conversion on anything of this scale in the past? Are there benefits to 10%? 20%? 30%? etc. If the answer is no, to every single percentage until 100%, then by all means, stick with the 100% arguments. Until then, just footnote that we can’t support X%…and folks will be better educated at this objective view. :) Thanks.

  • avatar
    Jim H

    With all due respect, the solutions for energy go beyond NIMBY environmentalists. When you start bringing in “personal” examples and dealing with things on a personal and emotional level, you lose your objectiveness in presenting facts and continually replace them with opinion. Passionate is good, dramatic is bad. :)

  • avatar
    Luther

    Alternative energy/ethanol/greenhouse gas/peak oil/Kyoto hoax is going to result in the largest transfer of wealth from the productive-classes to the parasite-classes the world has ever seen. Lenin/Stalin/Mao/Castro/Chavez/Hillary could not do better than this. The good news is that one can obtain huge sums of money separating the Thermodynamics-challenged from their labor income…If you dont starve them first that is.

  • avatar
    vento97

    Maybe the increase in demand for Ethanol will finally get high fructose corn syrup out of everything we eat.

    Hear, Hear!

    And as an added bonus, reducing the use of high fructose corn syrup will lead to a reduction in waistlines – leading to a reduction in demand for the big gas guzzling trucks and SUVs.

    A win- win scenario for everyone – unless you work for the Big 2.5…

  • avatar

    Brazil is using half its yearly sugarcane crop to provide 40 (to 50) percent of its vehicle fuel, while escalating deforestation to be able to grow more sugarcane (and soybeans).

    From the Washington Post on line (12/2006):

    The man who’s most worried about the competition for corn is Lester R. Brown, a MacArthur “genius grant” winner with impeccable environmental credentials.

    “The grain required to fill an SUV tank,” he says, “could feed one person for one year.”

    A former farmer, Lester Brown founded the Worldwatch Institutein 1974 and the Earth Policy Institute in 2001.

    So thank Ethanal for deforestation; higher corn prices; other grain prices going up (due to less planted acerage going to over corn); possible enviornmental issues; less energy per gallon, etc.

    Sounds more like snake oil to me.

  • avatar
    Jim H

    That transfer began long, long ago with oil. Can you back some facts up with putting Hillary in the same category as Lenin/Stalin/Mao/Castro/Chavez please. I’m not seeing the link…and I’m not even a hillary fan.

  • avatar
    Jim H

    Uggh…high fructose corn syrup…that poison is more detrimental to Americans than most other foods we eat (besides aspertame perhaps :) ). And it’s in nearly everything…soda, ketchup, energy drings (gatorade, powerade, etc.), breads (especially McDonalds), etc.

  • avatar
    Megan Benoit

    Corn-based ethanol has nothing to do with fuel and everything to do with farmers. For decades the government has been subsidizing the farm industry to the tune of billions of dollars. Corn is merely the worst offender. Do you know why high fructose corn syrup is in everything? Because the government had to figure out what to do with all the surplus corn being produced that they had to purchase from the farmers. HFCS is cheaper to use as a sweetener than sugar, largely because sugar is subjected to import tariffs that are set by the gov’t. Following me? So the food manufacturers whine about the high costs of sugar, the gov’t has surplus corn, and viola! You have HFCS and everyone is happy. Now that corn can go towards ethanol production, except it’s not so happy… E10 gas is cheaper in some areas because of the gov’t subsidies involved in its production. In reality, it costs significantly more than regular gas. Once the gov’t stops funding it, the price will skyrocket.

    Anyway, now some of that corn surplus is going towards ethanol production, and you won’t see anyone backing it more than the farmers. They’re the ones who really win, after all. The farming subsidies the gov’t has in place ensures that they won’t lose money on their crops if they overproduce or if prices fall. Everyone else loses. The consumer loses at the pump (and at the doctor’s office — increased usage of HFCS has been tied to increasing obesity rates) and the gov’t loses billions of dollars because the farmers have no incentive *not* to overproduce. And by finding bizarre uses for corn (such as ethanol), they are merely prolonging the problem that is the lack of a free market in US agriculture.

    There is a big difference between the corn that is used for ethanol production, the corn that is used for animal feed, and the corn that is used for human consumption. They are not all the same types of corn. Corn isn’t being diverted from the mouths of starving children in africa into the gas tanks of Hummers. But if the farmers can make more money planting corn that can be sold to make ethanol/HFCS, then the field space will go to that. Farmers are businessmen, after all. They have no incentive to do anything differently as long as the government keeps subsidizing them.

  • avatar
    Engineer

    At best we may be able to reduce oil use by about 20% under this scheme. Energy independence? Not even close.
    Excellent comments, Drew!
    You came to the right conclusion. But 20% is wildly optmisitic. Let’s crunch some numbers. In 2005, it is estimated that about 14% of the US corn harvest (about 10 billion bushels) was used to produce 4 billion gallons of ethanol. To put that in perspective, it is enough to replace ~0.86% of the US crude demand (~20 million , and climbing), after allowing for the fact that ethanol packs only ~2/3rds the energy per unit volume that crude oil does.

    So, assuming you take the full corn harvest and convert it all into ethanol, you can replace perhaps 6% of US crude demand. And that is before subtracting all the crude needed to plant the corn, harvest the corn, produce the ethanol, transport the ethanol and so on.

    But let’s get real people: Do we really need numbers to tell us it is downright boneheaded to think we can convert FOOD into FUEL and come out ahead? When did common sense become so uncommon?

  • avatar
    Engineer

    US crude demand: ~20 million barrels per day, and climbing…

  • avatar
    Alex Rashev

    Common sense have never been common ;) Think religion, witch trials, speed limits, gun control, lotteries, large portions, etc. People go for whatever makes them FEEL secure, or better off. They’re not worried about results, they just do things because they feel like something needs to be done.

    This is the biggest problem with society – we can’t create and follow a clear path to “objective”. Instead, we center on “solutions”. Forgoing all the steps inbetween, such as regression analysis, for example.

    As old people used to say, you have to take off your pants before you make a poop.

  • avatar
    SuperAROD

    2007 estimated production is 8 billion gallons. Doubling in 2 years. 2009 is on track for 16 billion gallons.

    So two years from now, we are looking at nearly 4% of our oil comsumption being replaced.

    Tell Brazil how boneheaded it is to convert food into fuel.

  • avatar
    Alex Rashev

    As for ethanol, all this corn would be better used for corn whiskey. Which we could then give to bums and homeless so that they’d work on construction projects to build a nice, extensive, efficient railway system.

    I can’t believe that it’s still cheaper for 18 wheelers to move across the country on their own, instead of being a mere local delivery tool. I can understand why people want to drive their own cars instead of taking a train, but ground cargo delivery system could certainly use some improvement.

    How about natural gas? I recall a fairly successful project by Tupolev, with a natural gas-powered Tu-154. Seems like a nice way to clean up aircraft emissions AND save some liquid fuel.

  • avatar
    cgraham

    Necessity is the mother of all invention. When I went away to school, I couldn’t cook…at all. I found out very quickly that things that said ‘steak’ and cost $3, both tasted terrible and made all of my teeth hurt. Eventually, I learned how to feed myself and never caught the freshman 15. I keep hoping that eventually the necessity will be great enough that we will be able to come upon a common solution to this problem. My fear is though, how big does necessity need to be before we really start inventing? How much does gas really need to be before we really start trying to replace it? I am sorry, but a solution for some is not a solution for all. Like it or not, Ethanol will not start an engine at -30C. It gets that cold in places where people live, really it does, and I am not exaggerating. Oh that’s easy to fix…use a block heater! Right, which uses electricity, which I am sure is being made using renewable energy. We need an answer, a unified answer that everyone can agree upon and that everyone can work towards. Two heads are better than one. Why are we all trying to find our own ways to fix this? We seem to just be throwing things against the wall to see what sticks. We are not talking about Betamax or Laserdiscs here. We can’t have half the world running on hydrogen while the other half is running on Ethanol. Or maybe we can, but the last thing we need, IMO is something else to differentiate and divide people. This isn’t a problem unique to the US, we all live in the same place and we’re all looking for an answer to the same problem. I didn’t know I was such a hippie…

  • avatar
    SuperAROD

    The alternate argument is “let’s do nothing until we can figure out a 100% solution.”

  • avatar
    Drew

    2007 estimated production is 8 billion gallons. Doubling in 2 years. 2009 is on track for 16 billion gallons.

    So two years from now, we are looking at nearly 4% of our oil comsumption being replaced.

    Again…this is not true. The point that you are missing is that it takes oil to make ethanol! To make 1 gallon of ethanol, you have use between about 0.9 and 1.1 gallons of oil – depending on whose numbers you believe.

    Let’s take the best case scenario – 0.9 gallons of oil for 1 gallon of ethanol. 16 billion gallons of ethanol is 380 million barrels of ethanol. Saving .1 barrel of oil per barrel of ethanol yields a savings of 38 million barrels of oil.

    But, ethanol doesn’t have as much energy as oil, it has only about 2/3 the energy per volume. So, 38 million barrels of oil times 2/3 = a net savings of 25.14 million barrels of oil.

    As noted earlier the US uses 20.74 million barrels of oil per day. So, the total savings by using ethanol comes to 29 hours worth of the US oil consumption. That’s 0.3 percent – not anywhere even remotely close to the 4% that you claim.

    This is assuming that your 16 billion gallon figure is correct and assuming an optimistic energy balance for ethanol.

    It’s simply not worth it – not with today’s technology. Can we continue to research it? Sure. But how about we agree not to commercialize something and make all kinds of promises until we’ve done the @#$(&! research. Okay?

  • avatar
    NoneMoreBlack

    Problem: Is ethanol energy efficient to produce?

    Solution: Remove subsidies, let the market answer the question. Until it is, it will not be efficient to produce it. This will not, however, remove the incentive to increase the efficiency of ethanol production, as whoever does will be able to reap profits. Everyone will win.

    Besides, it’s impossible to fully replace oil with ethanol; there is no crop which produces enough ethanol per acre to do so with the amount of arable land in the US, and still produce food.

    Bloated inefficient government makes economists sad.

  • avatar

    Agree in general with this timely editorial. Among other things, agriculture as currently practiced is an environmental disaster, and anything that puts more acreage under fertilizer and pesticides and causes more soil erosion is to be avoided. And I sure don’t see the point of corn-based ethanol when net energy is tenuous.

    I do quarrel with the notion that we should drill for arctic oil. We need to get off of the hydrocarbons to mitigate global heating (much as I love internal combustion–no hybrid or EV will ever sing like a Porsche!), and even if we didn’t, there is so little oil up there, and so much irreparable environmental destruction would come from extracting it. If we aren’t imaginative enough to be able to do without the small amount of oil underlying the north slope, there’s little hope for us.

    And while nuclear may be of some help, anyone who expects it to be a panacea should contact me. I’m selling a bridge, cheap.

  • avatar
    balthazar

    Ever drive a vehicle in cold weather that had ethanol in the tank? (provided you could start it)
    Venezuelan temps are fine for burning low efficiency fuels
    Caracas (Venezuela) Jan hi/lo 75 56

  • avatar
    Drew

    The alternate argument is “let’s do nothing until we can figure out a 100% solution.”

    That’s complete crap and an intellectually dishonest strawman argument. It’s like saying that if you don’t drive a Chevy than you must drive a Ford. The world isn’t black and white.

    How about we spend our money on something useful? Between 1995 and 2003, federal corn subsidies totaled $37.3 billion. That’s enough money to give a $3700 subsidy to 10 MILLION cars like the Natual gas powered Honda Civic GX or a hybrid car. Both of these do actually reduce oil usage.

    Or we could build light rail in the urban areas of the US to cut down on the amount of driving that people need to do to commute. I love to drive, but sitting in traffic is not my idea of driving. Take the three biggest metro regions – say LA, SF, and Chicago (NY already has their subways) and give then each 10 billion and tell them to build world class public transit systems. That would be great.

    Or, we could spend that money on research, such as is done at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and elsewhere. We could focus on increasing energy efficiency in other areas of the economy – transportation only accounts for about 33% of oil usage in the US.

    It’s not an ethanol-or-nothing decision that we’re looking at. If the government is going to take my money, the least that they can do is not piss it away on utter stupidity.

    Edited to fix the quote at the top.

  • avatar

    SuperAROD:
    April 18th, 2007 at 1:24 pm
    I find it hilarious that people will bash ethanol with a large country sitting over there in S. America running almost entirely off of E85, and completely weaned of foreign oil.

    The difference is that making ethanol from sugar cane is a fairly efficient way to get energy. But the amount of petroleum that goes into growing corn and fermenting the starch — for fertilizer, farm machinery, transporting the stuff, running the stills, and probably more — is so great that the energy content of the ethanol may be no greater than the energy content of the petroleum used to make the ethanol.

    I think Stein XL’s comment, above, actually substantially overstates the amount of ethanol you get via corn per unit of petroleum.

  • avatar
    Luther

    “When did common sense become so uncommon?”

    Common Sence died with Algernon Sidney, John Locke, and Thomas Paine… Now we are just another freakish/parasitic Democracy.

    Grains and sugars (and alcohol) are poisonous to humans… Shouldn’t be eating that processed grocery store crap anyway. Corn is food’s food.

  • avatar

    In fact, the whole alternative fuels policy is full of such bizarre contradictions. Environmentalists who embraced biologically-derived ethanol as a “clean” alternative to carbon-based energy would do well to consider the enormous rainforest destruction caused by Brazil’s ethanol industry. The current rate of deforestation will have a more profound effect on greenhouse gasses than the planet’s vehicular emissions.

    This is a very important observation, and also a reason to hope that the US continues to tax imported ethanol at a high rate. Otherwise, American drivers will be causing destruction of the rainforest.

  • avatar
    Hippo

    Ethanol from corn = quite possibly the last scam from the corporate cleptocracy.

  • avatar
    msmiles

    this may be off topic but no more so than Sajeev’s comment: High fructose corn syrup is awesome! Why would we want it out of out diet? It sweetens and prevents cavities otherwise caused by simple sugars that are easily consumed by bacteria. Go ahead, eat that snickers, it won’t give you a cavity.

  • avatar
    SuperAROD

    I am 100% for Wind Power, 100% for Solar power, 100% for nuclear power, 100% for biofuels.

    The NIMBY’s are 50% for wind power if it doesn’t interfere with their views, 95% for Solar except we don’t have enough silicon, 5% for nuclear power because of 3 Mile Island, and 5% for biofuels because it doesn’t replace all of our gasoline and will cause mass starvation.

    Basically only 100% for everyone (But them) driving a Yugo and living in a mud hut. And 100% for mass transit which to actually make a difference in a country this size you would have to spend 47 quintillion dollars.

    That is my problem. Alternative fuel is but one component of an overall plan. Liberals falsely say the Iraq War is about oil, then fight to the death against the one current alternative we can produce.

  • avatar

    msmiles:
    April 18th, 2007 at 4:46 pm
    this may be off topic but no more so than Sajeev’s comment: High fructose corn syrup is awesome! Why would we want it out of out diet?

    it promotes diabetes even more than sugar

  • avatar
    lzaffuto

    Well, here’s a dumb question nobody may know the answer to… Is it possible to bioengineer sugarcane to grow in colder climates? If all of those corn growers could grow sugarcane instead we might actually make some progress with ethanol.

  • avatar
    jacob

    Yeah, it’s a problem. Midwestern economy is dependent on corn. Midwestern states have a huge representation in the electoral college and the congress. Add to that, that they’re traditionally considered swing states. The very first presidential caucus is being held in Iowa every four years. So, most politicians simply don’t have the balls to mess with corn subsidies.

  • avatar
    Matt51

    HEMP is the answer for biofuel. Can grow on crummy land that is not good for crops. Requires no fertilizer. Why do you think they call it weed? The stuff they would grow for fuel would not be smoking grade, so no arguments over drug use. I think Henry Ford had concluded hemp was the anwer.

  • avatar
    charleywhiskey

    The best thing about corn based ethanol production is that it pisses off both Castro and Chavez. So, politically, it’s a winner, even though thermodynamically it’s a wash. We don’t need any more studies because we already know that any serious energy policy has to include nuclear power – we just refuse to admit it.

  • avatar
    craiggbear

    Right on, Robert. Well said. C’mon people, get with the program!!!

  • avatar

    re nuclear: lets see how expensive it is when the utilities have to pay for the insurance, which falls on you and me because of the Price Anderson act (you can google it). Also, the cost of dealing with the waste, and the terrorism dangers. If the industry can deal with all that, fine.

  • avatar
    ihatetrees

    Good piece, RF. Re:

    If the U.S. is going to find a way to manage the political, environmental and economic implications of our energy production, delivery and consumption, we need to take a rational and independent look at ALL the alternatives– from Alaskan drilling to nuclear power to corn-based ethanol production. Otherwise, greed and hypocrisy will stymie any effort– however noble– to create any genuine change.

    The public and the political class it represents are currently NOT rational. But it’ll be interesting to see how the marxist ethanol lobby and the meltdown enviros deal with long term $3/gal gas AND world food price spikes.
    (They’ll probably blame Haliburton between tokes…)

    How this all actually plays out, especially if one of the 2.5 file, will be a train wreck. Many in the general public are economically insane regarding gas prices. I overheard some local car biz (UAW?) types talking about monthy FUEL stamps (for subsidizing your fill up). I thought it was a goof – but they were serious.

    BTW, whatever happened to the viability of compressed natural gas as a substitute fuel? Or is NG priced out of the market because we’re burning so much for the electric grid?

  • avatar
    Luther

    “And while nuclear may be of some help, anyone who expects it to be a panacea should contact me. I’m selling a bridge, cheap.”

    E=MC^2

    It dont get more panacea than that.

  • avatar

    @David Holzman

    1:1,38 – overstating.

    Yes, you’re probably right. As I put it in that note, I have seen lots of different figures, and I chose to go with the agro-lobby one, in order to not show bias.
    The farther north you go, the worse the relationship, and I’m sure the agro-lobby number has a healthy helping of Amazon forest growth rates in it.

    I have absolutely no belief whatsoever in Ethanol from corn grown in northern latitudes being a solution.

  • avatar

    @Balthazar

    Ever drive a vehicle in cold weather that had ethanol in the tank? (provided you could start it).

    Knock-knock! Who’s there?

    Too bad farmers can’t grow electricity … then their lobbies would go for that, and we wouldn’t have to suffer through these harebrained schemes.

  • avatar
    shaker

    I wonder where ADM stands on this issue… It seems to me that since they’re the largest processer of corn and soy related products, “our” ethanol policy will be dictated by its profitability for the company (#59 on the Fortune 500), and not necessarily for the common good (or common sense).

  • avatar
    indi500fan

    Ethanol makes the Indy cars smell a LOT better.
    I’m all for it
    :-)

  • avatar
    thx_zetec

    SuperAROD

    Is ethanol “part of the solution”? Why don’t we let the market decide?

    The point is that there are a huge number of potential solutions (drive less-huge cars, drive less, bio diesels, oil shale, butanol, bio-diesel from algae, heck much cheaper ethanol from Brazil kept out of US . . . ). Our policy should be to let the market pick the best solutions, not subsidize expensive boondoggles.

    Where do you draw the line? If I offered alternate fuel for 100 bucks a gallon would this be “part of the solution”? The point is that ethanol is now not the best solution.

    Based on current wholesale prices ethanol costs almost 2X more to drive a mile. Ethanol can only compete with massive subsidies from taxpayers, increasing federal deficit. There is no free lunch.

    Will ethanol become more efficient in the future? Sure but how much more – remember ethanol has been at the public trough for 30 years. The other alternatives are also improving. If the US subsidized the slide-rule industry in the 1970s then slide rules would have improved *some* but would not have surpassed the calculator.

    I don’t mind a few 100 million for research – but government should not engage in running the economy.

    The irony here is that we have a “free market” president employing same type of central planning that the Cubans use.

  • avatar
    jl1280

    So the arguement continues… what fuel we we use to power our cars. Instead of asking the real question: how will we organize our society when there is no alternative fuel to oil and gas? Do we ration fuel by price, or by need, or everyone gets assigned a quantity? How is the food system redeveloped so we don’t depend on oil so much? For sure the question shouldn’t be how do we continue to fuel our wasteful driving habits!

  • avatar
    Alex Rashev

    Oh, yes, I totally forgot that you can make some really powerful cars if you go with ethanol. Burns through the fuel mighty fast, though.

    I bet we’d save a lot more oil by putting up solar panels instead of corn fields. Last time I checked, $$$ payback time was 3 to 15 years depending on your location. Not bad at all. Even more risk-free than government bonds, and gives you better return time than [almost] any small business ever could.

    Think about all the natural gas you can free up to use for buses, vans, trucks, aircraft, etc. In turn letting us use gasoline strictly to power our personal means of propulsion.

    Or just get double windows in your house. Close the shades in the summer. Turn off the light when you leave. Take a train to New York instead of driving, and then trying to park in the middle of Manhattan like an idiot. And oh yeah, keep your old(er) car instead of getting “the next big thing that’s gonna save you a lot of money in gas”.

    Easy little things that will allow you to drive a 440ci Barracuda @ 12mpg, and still come out ahead of those Prius-driving eco-nazi’s.

  • avatar

    Luther: “And while nuclear may be of some help, anyone who expects it to be a panacea should contact me. I’m selling a bridge, cheap.”
    E=MC^2
    It dont get more panacea than that.

    Luther,

    that equation is science. Harnessing the power of the atom is technology. It is one thing to understand the science, and something else completely to turn it into a technology that people can use at reasonable cost and without undue environmental consequences. (By the way, I make my living writing about science, technology, and medicine.) By your logic, there should be unlimited power available, and we should be able to cure any genetic disease (including cancer) where we know what the flaws in the genes are.

  • avatar
    jkross22

    Regardless of the idea or technology, it’s doubtful we’ll find a silver bullet in any 1 idea. There will always be doubters of nuclear, ANWAR, solar, GM food grown for fuel, etc. and those that discount these straightaway have an agenda.

    It took several years, a lot of money and big brains to make the Manhattan Project work. Seems like we know how to tackle big projects, but can’t get out of our own way to just move forward with the energy issue.

    Keep the ideas as simple as possible and make it so that those that are on board early are rewarded. Isn’t that how the free market works?

  • avatar
    jkross22

    Oh yeah, and Rashev’s right. If we stop consuming so damn much, that might be curative in and of itself. Our gluttonous habits helped to dig the hole we’re now in.

  • avatar

    These things will sort themselves out, painfully. Hurting the wallet, and our desire to remain mobile.
    We got a period of apparently limitless mobility at the cost of insane wastefulness – we’ll learn to be smarter with our energy.

    I have a bet down that ten years from now, we won’t be driving personal vehicles over 50mph on any major road.

  • avatar

    Stein,

    Are you talking about Europe or the US? Or both? I can’t imagine that in 10 years we won’t still be doing at least 70mph on interstates in the US, and I’m not sure what you mean by “mass transit road.” But I agree about learning to be smarter w/ energy.

    Best, David

  • avatar

    JKRoss22: It took several years, a lot of money and big brains to make the Manhattan Project work. Seems like we know how to tackle big projects, but can’t get out of our own way to just move forward with the energy issue.

    Keep the ideas as simple as possible and make it so that those that are on board early are rewarded. Isn’t that how the free market works?

    Aren’t you contradicting yourself in thse two paragraphs ? A Manhattan project is by definition not a free market approach, and requires someone, probably with an agenda (and hopefully a public spirited one) to make decisions about what is going to be.

  • avatar

    @David

    You’re quite right, used “mass transit” in a way that is confusing there! In the modeling I’ve seen for future roadways and utilization the distinction between public and private transportation is significantly blurred.

    I mean major roads – highways, etc. And yes, this is Cassandra syndrome to the nth degree, let’s trust we’ll find some good optional sources of energy for our cars before we get to that kind of crunch.
    Bet still holds, though, for Europe! :-)

  • avatar
    markseven

    Just to add a little more political spin to the mix, here are a couple of examples of how politicians are getting some action from alt fuels.

    In the first case, Governor Suwarna Abdul Fatah of East Kalimantan, Indonesia just received 18 months jail time for selling a 2.5 million acre land concession contract to PT Surya Dumai Group – they were supposed to log rainforest and replant with oil palm but didn’t – they just logged the forest and didn’t bother replanting. Oil palm is used for many products, of which one is biofuel; the biggest Indonesia oil palm product importer is China.

    For the court outcome, look at http://www.ecoearth.info/shared/reader/welcome.aspx?linkid=713

    For some eco-based gory details, look at http://news.mongabay.com/2006/1220-borneo.html

    The second case is closer to home. Possible conflicts of interest came up when two Wisconsin state representatives recently introduced an incentive program/bill that will provide a $1,000 tax credit going to E85 car buyers. In 2003, State Representative Eugene Hahn’s wife bought $20,000 in shares in the United Wisconsin Grain Producers LLC; UWGP’s current annual production is 40 million gallons of ethanol and is expanding its operations to double output in the near future. The other bill sponsor, State Representative Mike Sheridan is president of UAW Local 95 at the local GM plant; half of the Janesville plant 2007 model year production was 120,000 flex-fuel vehicles.

    See http://www.jsonline.com/story/index.aspx?id=577322 for a report from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

  • avatar
    tankd0g

    “I agree with most of this article, but…

    “In fact, it’s entirely possible that it takes more energy to produce corn-based ethanol than it releases when it’s burned.”

    That’s always true unless we are talking nuclear energy. If the amount of energy released when a fuel is burnt/used is greater than that used in its production, the world will have an endless supply of energy. Not going to happen; law of thermodynamics.”

    Not exactly true. While the law of conservation of energy applies here, we don’t have to “produce” oil, it’s just there, waiting to be pumped.

  • avatar
    Luther

    Government Energy Policy = Thermodynamics via majority vote = destruction and death.

    Anyone disagree?

  • avatar
    Robbie

    The truth is simple: the farming lobby is behind the push for ethanol, but no rational, scientific or economic argument can be found in favor of it.

    Detroit likes it though, because it diverts attention from promoting small, fuel efficient cars.


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