By on May 6, 2008

g711526.jpgA while ago, James Fallows at the Atlantic Monthly asked readers to submit suggestions for "the stupidest policy ever." He rigged the deck by taking The Gulf of Tonkin resolution off the table, but the winner, by a landslide, is the blind support our "independent" politicians gave to the bio-ethanol scam. (And you're the victim.) The mag gave two of the winner's proponents, Justin Cohen and his father Reuben, special mention for their comprehensive summation of all that's wrong with bio-ethanol. "I think bi-partisan support for ethanol is more stupid [than the McCain-Clinton 'gas tax holiday' plan], because it's actually harmful and because it not only panders to the public… worse it panders to a special interest group (Midwest farmers and their regional politicians). It's harmful because: 1) it helped to catalyze higher levels of food inflation, 2) it consumes as much energy to make and distribute as it provides, 3) it deflects attention from developing/trying sound policies to enhance our energy security, 4) it didn't allow for removal of taxes on the import of truly energy efficient ethanol produced in Brazil from sugar, and 5) it's a such an extreme example of government dysfunctionality it causes people like me to become truly disillusioned with the political process."

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19 Comments on “Bio-Ethanol Voted “Stupidest Policy Ever”...”

  • avatar

    Here you need to separate Bio fuels based on where they came from.

    While the idea of stuffing more corn than it takes to feed a person for a whole YEAR into a single tank on a large SUV clearly deserves this “honorary mention”, there might still be a place for bio fuels.

    Just make them from, trash, sewage, algae anything, but food.

  • avatar

    Bio fuels are sustainable only if they come from waste not actual food stock for human or animal consumption. Bio diesel works great and is a good substitute for warm weather driving – it is also readily available with waste oil.

  • avatar
    Sammy Hagar

    It’s all fun and games until I can’t afford creamed corn anymore.

  • avatar


    I’m afraid that the inferior energy equation still holds with other sources. It’s not a very effective way of securing fuel for automotion and at best a stopgap measure, not a viable solution.

  • avatar

    Here’s what I find stupid: carmakers that sell E85 capable vehicles with poor fuel economy. If your MPG goes down by 30% it becomes a tough sell.
    Car makers need to beef up their technology and take advantage of the high octane of ethanol.
    If car makers don’t want to do this we need to drop ethanol as biofuel and focus on other types of biofuel.

    Other than that, I’m generally in favor of biofuel.

    Biofuels do save on importing oil from abroad, even though it may use a lot of natural gas during production. That helps mitigate oil prices.

    Second generation biofuel offers a lot of promise.

    There is a lot of potential to increase agricultural production, so some amount of biofuel production is fine. The current government mandate may be too aggressive, though.

    Keep in mind that much of the food inflation is caused by inflation in general and not just by biofuel.

    Here in California we have a renewable fuel standard that is designed a bit smarter: it looks at the complete biofuel chain and strongly promotes 2nd generation biofuel without an excessive ethanol mandate in the short term.

  • avatar

    Ah, finally, an environazi scheme exposed for the true stupidity that it is. Now if people would just wake up to the even more ignorant hoax called global warming and CO2 regulation.

  • avatar


    “Second generation biofuel offers a lot of promise.”

    Says who? This has become the new mantra: “Yes, first generation has its problems, but we will fix those when we move on to second generation biomass.”
    At one time, first generation biofuel also offered “a lot of promise.” The claim is that by using non-essential sources, we will not impact negatively on the environment. But a lot of studies are showing considerable downsides to second generation biofuels, as well — there’s a significant difference in energy expenditure between harvesting a crop and using heavy machinery to move a similar quantity of biomass out of a forest, for instance.
    And let’s just recognize switchgrass for the boondoggle that is. The administration must still be giggling with amusement for having even suggested it, in all seriousness.

  • avatar

    I’ve had a very dim opinion of ethanol for some years, now, and a lot of highly intelligent people are coming around to the conclusions I and many others already surmised.

    Just put 4.4 gallons of E10 intentionally into my 11 gallon gas tank, which means it is a 4% solution of ethanol. I do so occasionally in order to clean out the fuel system. (May as well take advantage of the stupidity of the political system to save a couple of dollars over putting fuel injection cleaner in the car – Lord knows I’m being taxed and spending several hundred on wasted monies for ethanol every year whether I use it or not).

    MPG on the Prius is down 9%. Read that again. 4% ethanol in the tank = 9% less efficiency.

    Now then, what is stopping us from demanding the politicians stop this foolishness? Surely once ethanol is taken out of the fuel equation, oil imports will DROP.

    I’ve said it before. EVERY CAR I’VE TESTED E10 IN SINCE 1979 USED MORE FUEL. All of them used at least 7% more fuel for 10% ethanol in the tank. Some used 25% more.

  • avatar

    I don’t think the ethanol scam can be blamed on the environmental folks, can it? This was an agribusiness wellness project from day 0, and they’ve been highly successful too in spite of those bothersome facts. Having the first primary in Iowa didn’t hurt either. But I’m not counting on getting the subsidy spigot turned off any time soon. The beneficiaries will just hunker down and keep it going at whatever level they can, and let the taxpayers be diverted by other matters.

  • avatar

    One odd missing policy gaffe from Atlantic Monthly’s list seems like the policy to invade Iraq, which pretty much guarantees that the oil rich Middle East will not be friendly to the USofA for a good long time. That policy nicely segues into good old corn fed bio-fuels.

  • avatar


    Re: 2nd generation biofuel.
    Seeing is believing, of course, so it’s fine if you’re a sceptic.

    But you must admit there is a stunning amount of innovation taking place. With the right incentives, such as California’s RFS, I’m optimistic that will work out just fine.

    For example:
    There exist dedicated energy crops such as Miscanthus Giganticus. That one doesn’t need much water or fertilizer; it grows fast; it allows harvesting a lot more biomass per acre than we get from corn; it has a great energy return on energy invested.

    You could gassify that and convert it to biodiesel using the Fisher-Tropsch process.
    It’s not cheap, but that’s okay, in the beginning.

    Combine biofuel like that with plug-in hybrids and you have a recipe for getting off oil over the next few decades.

  • avatar

    Just last week I watched an episode of Motorweek where they tested a Tahoe on their test loop … mpg …

    19 … regular gas
    14 … E85

    So, … in this vehicle I can get a 36% increase in gas mileage by using regular gas over E85.

    Besides the lousy fuel economy, using food to power our cars is just dumb and dumber.

  • avatar

    Politicians subsidize lots of behavior that makes little or no economic sense in the free market, making winners out of losers, and losers out of taxpayers. I’ve always been in awe of how much influence these winners have. I also wonder why voters continue to put up with it.

  • avatar

    “Damn those farmers (uh I mean ‘agribusinesses’) for trying to decrease our dependency on foreign oil. Especially if they actually make a profit growing their crop, everyone knows farmers are supposed to be dirt poor. This boondoggle is driving up our food costs!”, says the obese American shoving $.99 double cheeseburgers into his mouth.

  • avatar

    @menno: I have the same drop in fuel economy that exceeded the % alcohol in the tank. It happened exactly when they began sticking ethanol in the gasoline in Massachusetts.

    @Wolven: this enviro wrote an article highly critical of corn ethanol in 1979–because it would boost the price of food and anything else that depended on land.

  • avatar

    The “Dirt-Poor” Midwest “Farmers” are just a cover for big “Agribusinesses” (ADM, Cargill) that benefit in a big way from this boondoggle.
    Food prices were actually stagnant for some time until the biofuel “cash cow” came along.
    Once again, our “free market” demonstrates that it’s only “free” to powerful lobbyists.

  • avatar

    EJ_San_Fran :
    May 6th, 2008 at 10:51 pm

    With the right incentives, such as California’s RFS, I’m optimistic that will work out just fine.

    Then spend your money on R&D and get rich. Don’t take money (tax dollars) out of my pocket to finance your vision.

    That’s the part you don’t get- if ethanol is the wave of the future go get GE or someone to invest in it.

    Why should I be forced to subsidize research for multinationals? How about you lower my taxes and make them pay for their own R&D?

  • avatar

    i love it because it means my dad makes a huge amount of money from his canola. in every other way it is insane. another thing that should be on the list is that it disguises the subsididing of farmers and so makes it less likly that we will get a truly free market.

    and to EJ_San_Fran second generation everything is better but we still havent seen second gen nuclear power, gmo’s, solar, antiviruses, antibiotics so what makes you think we will get second gen biofuel any time soon.

  • avatar

    And let’s just recognize switchgrass for the boondoggle that is. The administration must still be giggling with amusement for having even suggested it, in all seriousness.
    Yes, but no.

    Yes: Switchgrass is a boondoggle, much like telling the nation we need to go shopping after 9/11 – no sacrifice required. And talking of the administration: I doubt they have the attention span to even remember what they said about switchgrass, leave alone be giggling about it.

    But no: 2nd gen biofuels CAN be done right, but will it? One promising technology: the German company Choren, developed, as it happens, with private funds. Note: no ethanol, just the same hydrocarbon fuel we are all so used to.

    For biofuels to work in the short term, it needs to be based on waste products (the bulk of landfill waste is paper, 57% of landfill waste is renewable, 83% is organic). Converting waste->fuel is adding value, unlike say food->fuel.

    You are right about any biofuel based on an energy crop, excluding perhaps algae. But that conversation can wait until we have figured out how to recycle the bulk of our landfill waste into fuel. By then we would actually understand what is required of a good energy crop.

    And yes, replacing 85 million bbl/d (and counting) with the next big thing may be unrealistic. Not to worry. At $120/bbl (and counting) conservation becomes a virtue few would want to do without…

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