Ethanol lies

January 22, 2008 | By | 22 Replies More

This Slate article is from 2005, but the topic is one that desperately needs to be reported accurately. It’s about ethanol, and the story is that it takes much more energy to make ethanol than one can get from ethanol.

Ethanol won’t significantly reduce our oil imports; adding more ethanol to our gas tanks adds further complexity to our motor-fuel supply chain, which will lead to further price hikes at the pump; and, most important (and most astonishing), it may take more energy to produce a gallon of ethanol than it actually contains.

If you find these these claims to be disturbing, check out these additional statistics produced by David Pimental, a Cornell University agricultural expert.  Ethanol can only “work” with massive government subsidies.  Ethanol is not quite the panacea it is touted to be by politicians and the corporate media, eh?  Here’s one of the shockers:

If all the automobiles in the United States were fueled with 100 percent ethanol, a total of about 97 percent of U.S. land area would be needed to grow the corn feedstock. Corn would cover nearly the total land area of the United States.

With numbers like these, why isn’t conservation constantly promoted on page one of every newspaper?


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Category: Energy, Politics

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (22)

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  1. mus302 says:

    If you read his study and start comparing the data to actual current data you will find that he uses old data to make his case. The most recent study that I have seen that he did he used 120 bushels of corn per acre and 2.5 gallons of ethanol. The average bushels per acre of corn last year was 151 bushels and ethanol plants are producing 2.85 gallons of ethanol per bushel of corn now.

    Also if you read through his study you will see that he adds inputs for such things as the energy it takes to produce the tractor used to plant and harvest the corn. He also adds inputs for the amount of energy it takes to build an ethanol plant. Would gasoline have a positive energy balance if we deducted out the energy it took to make the oil rig, the tanker that delivered it and the refinery that produced it?

    Sometimes news summaries and selected quotes don't tell the whole story.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Thanks, mus302. Your numbers are backed up elsewhere, for example in this Discover article.

    A big problem still is that the full scale ethanol production won't come close to replacing the current usage of oil. According to the Discover article: "At some point, though, corn ethanol will hit a wall. Even if the United States decided to ferment its entire corn crop, that would displace less than 20 percent of our gasoline consumption." Further, the articles I'm reading make it clear that ethanol production doesn't have a prayer without substantial government subsidies.

    My main concern with the ethanol hype is that ethanol is being touted as a replacement for gasoline, as though that is possible, at a time when our politicians should be hitting conservation hard. In the U.S. we waste incredible amounts of energy. Most Americans resist the idea that they should turn off lights they are not using and stop heating portions of their homes they are not using. They take it for granted that the massive flow of goods they consume are necessary to living a good life, and those (often unnecessary) goods take massive amounts of energy to produce and transport.

    How much energy do we waste? Depends on how you define "waste." What is clear is that we are near the top of the heap of energy users per capita and that we could do a lot better without driving up food prices by dedicating our corn crop to heating our homes to 72 degrees in the winter or driving SUV's instead of using smaller vehicles or using mass transit. We can do a WHOLE lot better using only conservation, but there is huge resistance to conservation in the U.S.  This is true, even though saving a unit of energy is the equivalent of finding a unit of energy.  Many people consider conservation insulting and weak.  This resistance to conservation is a foolish attitude that weakens national security, in my opinion.  But here we are touting most of our corn crop as a justification for continuing our wasteful ways.  Add to this mix that ethanol is a carbon fuel when global warming concerns require us to reduce our carbon footprint.

    The following data are from the World Resources Institute. The numbers are the residential energy consumption per capita Units: Kilograms of oil equivalent (kgoe) per person:

    Australia AUS 482.6

    Austria AUT 872.9

    Bahrain BHR 560.3

    Belgium BEL 956.7

    Brunei Darussalam BRN 158.3

    Canada CAN 1,013.8

    Cyprus CYP 302.7

    Denmark DNK 803.2

    Finland FIN 995.7

    France FRA 846.9

    Germany DEU 864.6

    Greece GRC 500.8

    Hong Kong HKG 181.1

    Iceland ISL 2,276.8

    Ireland IRL 678.1

    Israel ISR 426.4

    Italy ITA 517.8

    Japan JPN 377.4

    Korea, Rep KOR 380.2

    Kuwait KWT 1,069.3

    Luxembourg LUX 1,393.4

    Malta MLT 208.7

    Netherlands NLD 650.0

    Netherlands Antilles ANT 634.7

    New Zealand NZL 347.1

    Norway NOR 834.5

    Portugal PRT 302.1

    Qatar QAT 324.1

    Singapore SGP 143.5

    Slovenia SVN 639.6

    Spain ESP 329.1

    Sweden SWE 823.9

    Switzerland CHE 833.1

    United Arab Emirates ARE 700.1

    United Kingdom GBR 750.0

    United States USA 923.5

  3. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    The major problem with ethanol from corn is that the corn must be cooked with enzymes to break down the starch into sugars before fermentation. The energy needed for cooking the corn mash, in addition to the energy needed to distill the alcohol from the mash can very well exceed the usable energy that can be release from the ethanol when used as a fuel. In South America, they make ethanol from sugar cane, which needs no cooking or enzymes to convert starch into sugar, and the woody part of the cane can be used as a fuel for the distillation process.

    Also burning alcohol does not release as much energy as as burning the same amount of gasoline, and the distillation (fractioning) of petroleum to produce the components of gasoline and diesel fuels, is much more efficient than the distillation of ethanol from the fermented mash.

    Vegetable oil can be used in diesel engines with little modifcation, and makes a better fuel.  Check here for details on bio fuels.

  4. lisarokusek says:

    Not only does "ethanol as a solution" hype not deal with conservation, it also encourages our farmers to continue problematic growing patterns. My extended family are farmers, they were probably some of the larger independents in NE Missouri. Now they are driving the ethanol as a solution to our energy concerns and farming concerns bandwagon, and it is highly charged as a business, and politically. Fascinating, really. While I applaud the innovation and scrappiness involved in finding a new market to keep people farming, I distrust some of the basic underpinnings.

    This dependence on corn corn corn is part of the reason we have corn syrup solids in every freakin' thing we eat. Pork barrel spending ought to be known as corn husk politics. Plus, corn is not even the best way to make energy. There are better crops if we were going to try to create a solution in this way.

    If we could adapt and learn and our farmers could find a way to make a living growing FOOD again instead of grain alcohol and sugar substitutes it might be a happier world.

    Sadly that solution seems far away. There are no easy answers. I am not looking to blame anyone, it is a complicated situation, and the plight of the family farmer is really awful. It just seems like we are in a cycle of action based on asking the wrong questions.

  5. This reminds me of the old paper cup vs styrofoam controversy. It turns out that in terms of absolute negative environmental impact, despite the fact that styrofoam doesn't degrade, paper cups are FAR worse because of the manufacturing process necessary to make them.

    As with the ethanol debate, the real answer isn't either/or, but something else entirely…a ceramic or glass cup!

  6. mus302 says:

    Erich Vieth,

    Ok, I understand. Since as you say ethanol cannot replace gasoline we should scrap the idea.

    Instead you say we should concentrate on conservation. But conservation can't replace gasoline either. There is no way that we could conserve our way down to nothing. So I guess conservation should be scrapped as well.

    Oh well, I guess until the one perfect solution comes along we should all just continue doing what we are doing now. And that is burn more and more gasoline.

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    mus302: My impetus for writing this article is that so many Americans (I have met many of them) claim that we can have business as usual, wasting energy, because, SOMEHOW, corn will be the new gasoline. That is not possible. That is not even 10% possible, based on much of the current literature, and even that tiny slice of gasoline that corn could replace would be replaced only with dramatic repercussions to the food markets and other problems. What problems? Check out this article, featured on the Rocky Mountain Institute site.… . Ethanol from corn causes water pollution, soil erosion and competes with food crops for resources.

    What would I do? Nothing? You can't be serious. Conservation could be a huge step forward. Let Americans get used to using half the energy they now use. What do we do as the gasoline runs out? How about a huge solar program like this? How about lots of low carbon footprint architecture, as described here? How about lots of research into more efficient methods of using hydrogen for energy storage?

    Here are some more ideas

    We can do much much better than dishonestly putting forth corn as a "substitute" for gasoline. I know that the scientists aren't the cause of this misinformation campaign. I'm tired of seeing mainstream media and politicians touting corn-based ethanol touted as the centerpiece for our future energy program.

  8. Alison says:

    It would be political suicide to promote any solutions that might involve personal sacrifice to their contituents. Much better, career-wise, to pretend that a change that shows no outward difficulty to consumers has no negative consequences. Throw in the fact that politicians and their parties depend on the continued profits of their corporate contributors, and we have a vicious circle of one hand washing the other – soap provided by us, the little people. Too few people are critical thinkers, and don't double check what they're reading or hearing on TV. Too many people don't have the time, education, or impetus to even think about questioning what they're told. All the politicians and their beneficiaries have to do is count on these people to believe what they're told, not only about how they don't need to worry, but also about how stupid, subversive, unAmerican, etc., the dissenters and protesters are.

    We can do our own parts to help, try to pass on the information we have to other people, and be satisfied with a little progress here and there. Expecting that politicians, profiteers, and our fellow citizens to decide that sacrifices are worth it for a long-term environmental benefit is delusional. (We can act like it's a possibility, and maybe our enthusiasm will be inspirational – but constantly hoping and constantly being disappointed would be emotionally crushing!)

  9. Erich Vieth says:

    Here are more disturbing stats to ponder regarding ethanol: This is an article titled: "Corn Ethanol: Laundering Fossil Fuels, Bilking Taxpayers, damaging the Environment." by T.W. Patzek.

    Patzek is a Professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at the University of California, Berkeley.

    I agree with Alison that politicians would rather get elected with comfortable lies than to tell the citizens that they might actually need to change their behavior in a way that would involve some self-sacrifice.  

  10. mus302 says:

    Erich Vieth,

    In the case of Patzek if you read his studies you will find that he includes such inputs as the energy derived from the sun and soil. And to put that into context would gasoline have a positive energy balance if you include the energy provided by mother nature to make the crude oil as an input? No.

    It also is worth noting that Patzek is a scientist that studies how fluids flow through rocks. Not very relevant to ethanol but it sure is to petroleum. And that kinda explains the fact that he is the head of the UC Petroleum Consortium, which is of course funded by oil money.

    As far as ethanol being promoted as a substitute for gasoline. I don't know anyone in corn farming or the ethanol industry that has said that. The National Corn Growers Association has said all along that corn could produce about 15 billion gallons of ethanol per year. Anything above that would have to come from somewhere else. As for the media and politicians who can control that? But the fact that they just passed new fuel economy standards and an energy bill that calls for a gradual shift to cellulosic ethanol, they aren't banking on corn ethanol getting us the whole way.

    And as far as ethanol from corn causing water pollution and soil erosion, does corn farming for food not do the same thing? And if corn production was the cause of water pollution and the Gulf of Mexico dead zone wouldn't last years crop, the largest since WWII have caused the largest dead zone recorded? It didn't it was the third largest. The largest was in 2002 when 20 million less acres were planted than last year. As far as soils erosion goes, if this were true wouldn't the yield of corn go down as topsoil is lost? It hasn't. I have covered most all of this on my blog. Most of the claims waged against ethanol simply do not have the data to back them up.

  11. Erich Vieth says:

    mus302. Thanks. I will visit your blog. What is driving me is that there is abject complacency on the streets regarding our energy crisis. On the streets (and from political pulpits) almost no one is voicing the need to make any serious changes in our lifestyle NOW. I've spoken to dozens of people on the streets. The number one reason they are not concerned? "They are figuring out how to grow fuel using corn." The number two reason is "The free market will take care of it." There is a vast information disconnect out there. It reminds me of all the people who (still) go around saying that the U.S. needed to invade Iraq because of Al Qaeda or because Iraq was behind 9/11.

    I don't believe that we're suddenly going to run out of energy next year or the next year. My big concern is that there is going to be an inexorable ramping up of the cost of gasoline over the next few years–that it could go up a dollar per year based on dwindling supplies and increasing worldwide demand. I'm concerned with the kind of stress that could put on our fragile economy, including the risks of rampant inflation.

    I'm tired of hearing about corn as the solution. Perhaps, as you suggest, corn can play a role (I'm still skeptical). When people utter "corn" as a fuel, they need to say out loud that it is one tiny piece of the puzzle, at most.

    I consider sensible energy policy to be inextricably tied to national security. I want to hear a coherent political message about the need to change our profligate use of energy here in the U.S. so that we make ourselves less vulnerable to the many challenges and dangers over the horizon.

  12. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's another thing about ethanol from Business Week.  The title:  "Ethanol's Growing List of Enemies":

    Economists argue that making ethanol from corn wouldn't make any sense without the government's help. The mix of federal and state subsidies to corn ethanol amounted to a conservative estimate of $5 billion to $7 billion in 2006, says Koplow of Earth Track. A considerable chunk of that money comes from the 51¢ tax refund for each gallon of ethanol refiners blend with gasoline to make fuels that can power flexible-fuel cars.

    At the same time, the government imposes a 54¢-per-gallon tariff on ethanol from Brazil, which is a cheaper and more energy-efficient product made from sugar cane.

    For the full article, go here.

    I didn't know about the TARIFF on Brazilian bio-fuels.  That tariff speaks of a big self-interested LOBBY for corn.

    What if we put a 51-cent per gallon equivalent subsidy toward solar or toward conservation? How much further along toward having a sustainable energy policy would we be now?

  13. mus302 says:

    I agree that there is a general apathy in regards to the energy situation from the general public. There will always be people that think the government can solve their problems and there will always be people who won't do anything until it effects them personally. To that end the high price of gas is the best thing to spur some action. A lot of the problems we have resulted from years of cheap gas and the reverse process will take years as well.

    Cheap gas has been responsible for people moving away from urban centers into the suburbs since commuting was cheap. Cheap gas actually encourages people to alter their habits and drive more. Now we have expensive gas and changing habits and lifestyles will take some time. People will look to more efficient vehicles on their next purchase and will look for housing closer to work.

    And ethanol may be a small piece of the pie but it is growing. But this isn't a static system yet everyone treats it like it is. At the present ethanol, adjusted for energy content makes up about 3% of the gasoline supply. If through buying more efficient cars, moving in closer to work, and better fuel economy standards gasoline consumption is cut in half then ethanol becomes 6% of the supply even without any further production increases. Then if cellulosic ethanol becomes available and triples production you are talking about 18% of the gasoline supply.

    If you are going to look at ethanol subsidies you should also look at the money that goes to the petroleum industry as well. From the sweetheart deals on off shore royalties the Clinton administration made in the 1990's that allow oil to be pump from the gulf royalty free. That is estimated to be $60 billion over 20 years. And look at things like the depletion allowance and the costs incurred by the military to protect oil shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf.

    As for the 54 cent tariff. Look at biodiesel it has a subsidy but no matching tariff. Companies in other countries are sending ships here loaded with biodiesel and blending in petroleum diesel at the port, collecting the subsidy then shipping the biodiesel off to mainly Europe to be sold. It is a tactic called "splash and dash" and has us in hot water with EU. They have or are considering filing an anti-dumping complaint against us with WTO. The tariff simply offsets the subsidy. Yes, I know there is a 3 cent difference but the subsidy used to be 54 cents as well.

  14. Erich Vieth says:

    The Economist's food-price index is higher today than at any time since it was created in 1845 (see chart). Even in real terms, prices have jumped by 75% since 2005. No doubt farmers will meet higher prices with investment and more production, but dearer food is likely to persist for years (see article). That is because “agflation” is underpinned by long-running changes in diet that accompany the growing wealth of emerging economies—the Chinese consumer who ate 20kg (44lb) of meat in 1985 will scoff over 50kg of the stuff this year. That in turn pushes up demand for grain: it takes 8kg of grain to produce one of beef.

    But the rise in prices is also the self-inflicted result of America's reckless ethanol subsidies. This year biofuels will take a third of America's (record) maize harvest. That affects food markets directly: fill up an SUV's fuel tank with ethanol and you have used enough maize to feed a person for a year.

  15. Erich Vieth says:

    The widespread use of ethanol from corn could result in nearly twice the greenhouse gas emissions as the gasoline it would replace because of expected land-use changes, researchers concluded Thursday.

  16. Erich Vieth says:

    Another reason that conservation (not ethanol blather) needs to be the priority regarding energy policy:

    USAID officials said that a 41 percent surge in prices for wheat, corn, rice and other cereals over the past six months has generated a $120 million budget shortfall that will force the agency to reduce emergency operations. That deficit is projected to rise to $200 million by year's end. Prices have skyrocketed as more grains go to biofuel production or are consumed by such fast-emerging markets as China and India.

  17. "When you take this into account, most of the biofuel that people are using or planning to use would probably increase greenhouse gasses substantially," said Timothy Searchinger, the lead author of one of the studies and a researcher on the environment and economics at Princeton University. "Previously, there's been an accounting error: Land use change has been left out of prior analysis."

    Plant-based fuels were originally billed as better than fossil fuels because the carbon released when they are burned is balanced by the carbon absorbed when the plants grow. But even that equation proved overly simplistic because the process of turning plants into fuel causes it own emissions – through refining and transport, for example.

    The land-use issue makes the balance sheet far more problematic: The clearance of grassland releases 93 times the amount of greenhouse gas that would be saved by the fuel made annually on that land, said Joseph Fargione, the lead author of the other study and a scientist at the Nature Conservancy. "So for the next 93 years, you're making climate change worse, just at the time when we need to be bringing down carbon emissions."

  18. Erich Vieth says:

    The most seductive myth about ethanol is that it will free us from our dependence on foreign oil. But even if ethanol producers manage to hit the mandate of 36 billion gallons of ethanol by 2022, that will replace a paltry 1.5 million barrels of oil per day — only seven percent of current oil needs. Even if the entire U.S. corn crop were used to make ethanol, the fuel would replace only twelve percent of current gasoline use.

    Another misconception is that ethanol is green. In fact, corn production depends on huge amounts of fossil fuel — not just the diesel needed to plow fields and transport crops, but also the vast quantities of natural gas used to produce fertilizers. Runoff from industrial-scale cornfields also silts up the Mississippi River and creates a vast dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico every summer. What's more, when corn ethanol is burned in vehicles, it is as dirty as conventional gasoline and does little to solve global warming: E85 reduces carbon dioxide emissions by a modest fifteen percent at best, while fueling the destruction of tropical forests.

    But the biggest problem with ethanol is that it steals vast swaths of land that might be better used for growing food. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs titled "How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor," University of Minnesota economists C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer point out that filling the gas tank of an SUV with pure ethanol requires more than 450 pounds of corn — roughly enough calories to feed one person for a year.

    From Rolling Stone (Aug 09, 2007)

  19. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's yet another big swipe at the promise of ethanol. And where have all of the ethanol defenders gone lately?

    Here's the link.

  20. grumpypilgrim says:

    Ethanol-based fuel is sold in my community. The last time I checked, it was selling for about 85% the price of gasoline. On the surface, that would suggest that ethanol is a cost-effective alternative. However, ethanol-based fuel contains only about 85% of the energy content of gasoline, so engines need to burn more of it, thus making it no significant savings compared to gasoline.

    Be that as it may, the "scientific" studies that show ethanol to be cost-effective all seem to be sponsored by companies that would benefit from the sale of ethanol, which would suggest that such studies are not unbiased.

  21. jack woods says:

    diesel is the answer here not ethonol!.

  22. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Actually Jack, bio-diesel is the answer.

    Algae farming is emerging as the most economically viable method of producing xylene compounds which can be burn in existing diesel engines.

    Unlike ethanol, which requires considerable amount of energy to distill, xylene can be extracted by simply pressing the algae. The algae solids can then be bio-digested to produce methane, or processed and used in a variety of agricultural products, including high protein fillers for livestock and pet foods.

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