Thursday, February 08, 2007

Forget the Corn

In "Pass on the Corn"*, Joel Belz argues against ethanol as a petroleum alternative. Ethanol can be made from soybeans, cane, and from some grasses, but it comes primarily from corn because it's so plentiful. At first, ethanol appeared an exciting option--grow our own fuel and kiss the Middle East's oil good-bye. However, as Belz points out, there are major flaws in the argument for ethanol.

First, it takes a lot of oil to produce ethanol for vehicles. In fact, it takes "about a gallon of petroleum-based fuel to manufacture 1.3 gallons of ethanol." Put another way, twenty gallons of ethanol at the gas station took fifteen gallons of petrol to produce.

Has anyone else noticed a decrease in fuel efficiency lately? That's because ethanol is not as fuel efficient, needing "eleven gallons of ethanol to go the same distance that ten gallons of petroleum will take you."

The worst problem, however, is that ethanol is subsidized. "Except for federal subsidies, every gallon of ethanol that's been sold in the United States would have cost about fifty cents more than it actually sold for."

That kind of subsidy will do us no good in the long run. While corn farmers are enjoying this bonanza, unintended consequences are sure to follow. "Ethanol gobbles up so much corn every day that the price of corn has jumped to record highs. Farmers who grow corn like that, but people who raise livestock don't because they have to pay more for the corn they feed their cattle and pigs." Not only will the many foods which are corn-based cost more, but so will beef, dairy, and pork products.

A little closer to home, a friend of mine raises cattle for beef. He's friends with the dairy farmers in his region--make that dairy farmer, since there are no longer any others there. That remaining dairy farm may not make it either. The owner can't afford to pay for corn feed, among other problems.

As a nation blessed with terrific geography, we should be well able to feed ourselves with no problem. The effects of federal subsidies on corn, however, will ripple through the economy, costing the average person more for food. It may drive more dairy farmers from the market as they sell off their cattle as beef and put their land up for sale. The loss of these farms cannot be attributed to the free market system in action since these particular financial woes are government induced.

Yes, we need alternative energy. No one wants to be free from our energy dependence on the Middle East more than I. Ethanol, however, is not the way to achieve this goal.

*quotes are from Belz's article in World

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At 2/08/2007 11:20 AM, Anonymous Eric said...

What's interesting, from what I've read over the years, is that those subsidies are not actually making it to the farmer but rather to the corporations that are running the large mono-culture (i.e. corn) farms. When the farmers do receive the subsidies it usually his income is still below what his cost is and thus the "family farm" still takes a hit. Thanks for posting on the amount of petroleum vs. amount of ethanol statistic. I wasn't aware that it was that high!

At 2/14/2007 5:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 2/16/2007 5:14 PM, Blogger Thomas said...

I'm a big proponent of ethanol and of non-fossil fuels in general.

It seems to me that your issue with ethanol is not with the fuel, itself, but with the economics that currently surround ethanol production, which I grant are greatly flawed. Most major shifts in technology infrastructure have required some sort of subsidy in order to get off the ground. This was true for the railroads, for air travel and it was true for the telephone system.

Barring subsidies, which we can only hope will go the way of the dodo, most of the problems with ethanol are issues of the scale of production. Once ethanol is being produced in industrial quantities many of the inefficiencies of ethanol production can be remedied including the net energy debt. As for the effect on feed prices etc, as you said, ethanol can be produced from virtually any carbohydrate, not just corn.

All that having been said, ethanol is only one leg holding up the table of energy independence, not a cure all.


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