Monday, June 23, 2008

Over the BQE: Corn Ethanol is Driving on Fumes

With all those cars whizzing constantly by, one's mind occasionally turns to what's making them go. If only it were as simply joyful as Dr. Seuss implied.

The current Times headline article underscores the complexity, reporting on Obama's support of subsidies for farmers producing corn for ethanol. I disagree with Obama's embrace of corn ethanol and in fact find more sanity, on one level, in the laissez-faire position of folks (like, like it or not, McCain) who support eliminating the tariff on sugarcane ethanol, which is much more efficient than its corn counterpart (an 8:1 versus 2:1 energy ratio, meaning that corn ethanol just barely produces enough energy to make it even remotely viable).

In a nutshell (cornhusk?), corn ethanol owes its existence to massive inputs of, yes, petroleum-based energy, in the form of farm and processing equipment and fuel. It requires enormous amounts of land, at a time when the world faces an impending food crisis. Because it relies so heavily on petroleum, not to mention inputs of fertilizer, water, and other limited resources, it is not an environmentally sustainable solution. It has worldwide, lesser-known environmental impacts, too, like contributing to Amazon deforestation because increased U.S. corn production means soybeans must be grown elsewhere, and elsewhere is often Brazil. It's unreliable: as Midwestern floods have underlined, shifting weather patterns leave us on shaky (sodden) ground if we're relying on single regions for traditional sources of food, and now energy (millions of acres and billions of dollars in crops were lost in the waters). And it produces far less energy than other alternative sources, such as the just-mentioned sugarcane ethanol, wind power, solar power, geothermal power, hydropower, and ethanol produced from wood and other scraps.

As for corn ethanol subsidies, consider this, from economist Steve Stoft's zFacts:
"Corn ethanol subsidies totaled $7 billion in 2006 for 4.9 billion gallons of ethanol. That's $1.45 per gallon of ethanol (and $2.21 per gal of gas replaced). Even with high gas prices in 2006, producing a gallon of ethanol cost 38¢ more than making gasoline with the same energy, so ethanol did need part of that subsidy. But what about the other $1.12? Not needed! So all of that became a $5.4 billion windfall paid to real farmers, corporate farmers, and ethanol makers like multinational ADM. That's quite a bit [of money, especially] when you figure it only made us 1.1% more energy-independent and only reduced U.S. greenhouse gases by 1/19 of 1%."

Cleantech Blog offers a simple breakdown of elements of the corn ethanol controversy. I come from a long line of farmers, and I support small farmers everywhere, but there has got to be a better way to support their work (it's the big commercial farms getting the lion's share of the ethanol subsidies anyway), feed people, and sustain the planet.

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