Making Ethanol from Corn Is a Bad Idea for America

Even George Bush, the most oil-soaked U.S. President in history, has acknowledged that “America is addicted to oil.” In our fantasies, our President orders a “man on the moon” commitment to help America become Fossil Free by ’33, with a massive research focus on energy conservation, population control, and renewable energy sources.

Nah. This is reality, and your President and Congress want to keep the cars running at all costs. So their “solution” is to supplement the earth’s dwindling petroleum bounty with a massive new initiative to produce ethanol from corn. Advocates of corn ethanol have wrapped it in Stars and Stripes: the genesis of a new American abundance that will reduce exhaust of American automobiles, bring new life and vitality to rural America, and make America energy independent again.

The National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) says that the U.S. used 1.8 billion bushels of corn in 2006 to produce 4.9 billion gallons of fuel. NCGA predicts that by 2014-15, corn growers will be producing 5.5 billion bushels and that with as yet undeveloped improvements in conversion efficiency, this will equate to 15.9 billion gallons of ethanol. That’s a 300% increase in corn production, and it’s good news if you’re the NCGA, of course, because it means a bigger market for corn.

You already know we think it won’t work. Let’s talk about why.

Ethanol Provides Less Energy Than Gasoline

That impressive sounding 15.9 billion gallons of ethanol is equivalent to 85% as much gasoline, because ethanol has less energy than gasoline. So the adjusted 13.6 billion gallons of gasoline equivalent ethanol is about 9.6% of the gasoline fuel base. So no one is saying that ethanol will replace gasoline, only that ethanol may provide a slight supplement to it and slightly reduce the need to import foreign oil. And anytime you use ethanol as a substitute for gasoline, you’ll need to burn more of it (using more corn and generating more greenhouses gases).

Nobody’s mentioning this yet, but they will: ethanol’s performance drops dramatically at temperatures below 30 degrees F. Cars running on gasoline/ethanol blends like E85 have trouble starting in cold weather. Thanks to your President’s and your Congress’s being owned by large chemical companies that will profit from a big increase in big-ag corn production, ethanol fuels can have a higher vapor pressure than gasoline can in hot weather, which creates a higher likelihood of vapor lock on hot days (sometimes keeps a hot engine that’s turned off from restarting – you just have to wait for it to cool off).

And during the summer, the rapid evaporation of ethanol not only robs motorists of fuel; it also creates a smog hazard so severe that Georgia and Florida have banned its sale in the summer.

Ethanol Corrodes Engines

Ethanol corrodes rubber, steel, and aluminum. Think gaskets that fail, leaking fuel, lubricant, and coolant from where they need to be to where they don’t. Think interior engine surfaces that oxidize and build up crud that makes the engine run more sluggishly, requiring more frequent tune-ups and the use of cleansing additives. So converting an engine to run on ethanol typically involves changing out many parts that may come in contact with the fuel. That generates extra expense for the vehicle and for maintenance.

Gasoline and water won’t mix. Ethanol, on the other hand, will mix readily with water and absorb it. Gasoline can sit in a car’s tank for several months without significantly affecting performance or damaging the engine. Do that with ethanol or an ethanol blend, and you’ve get a mess on your hands. So people who store their engine will need to drain ethanol from the tank. This will usually mean wasting fuel.

Corn Production for Ethanol Will Create Additional Stress on Water Supplies

The National Research Council is the research arm of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. In a report issued in October of 2007, the NRC said that if corn production rises to the levels projected to make ethanol a significant part of the U.S. energy mix, it would cause considerable harm to the water supply of the nation and create water supply problems in several locations. The growing of corn on new acreage tends to be on acreage that’s drier. That means irrigation, which further stresses the water supply for other uses.

The runoff from the widespread use of nitrogen fertilizers for corn production has already created large “hypoxic” regions (called “dead zones”) in the Gulf of Mexico (the size of New Jersey), the Chesapeake Bay, and the coast of Oregon, as well as in the Baltic Sea and the northern Adriatic. The NRC said that increasing corn production could impact the quality of groundwater, rivers, coastal, and offshore waters.

And the report from the NRC also noted that the facilities to distill ethanol from corn also use large quantities of water, which could have a negative impact on the water supplies in the communities where the refineries are located.

We Humans Also Need to Eat

For all of the roughly 9,000 years that humans have grown crops, they have used those crops more or less exclusively to feed themselves and their animals. Suddenly, here in the 21st century, the corn/ethanol movement seeks to discard that fundamental principle and divert crops for the production of fuel for vehicles. If the ethanol plants currently planned or under construction were all operating, they would consume 1/2 the current crop of corn.

Few of us have come to grips with how pervasive corn is in our food supply. More than 20% of the items available for sale in a typical U.S. supermarket in 2007 contain some form of corn. We already know that food is increasing in price dramatically. Diverting half the corn crop for the production of ethanol would exacerbate that trend.

Ethanol advocates are fond of assuring consumers that the kind of corn used for ethanol is different from the corn those consumers buy by the ear and eat directly. The corn used for ethanol is field corn, barely edible and certainly not pleasant to eat. But we must never get confused and believe that diverting that corn won’t affect the food supply. Field corn is the same variety fed to livestock and used for corn syrup, and diverting it has already begun to affect the price of corn and all things dependent on corn.

And even if the corn grown for ethanol were fundamentally different from that used for fuel, the land used is the same dirt. Every acre we use for corn for ethanol is an acre not used for food or an acre not allowed to lie fallow. Fallow land conserves topsoil and water, provides habitat for wildlife, nadleft with a natural tree cover to conserve water and freshen our air.

Now Let’s Look at EROEI

Oh yeah, the EROEI thing. You can’t evaluate any energy source adequately without a thorough understanding of EROEI, and that’s particularly the case with corn-based ethanol. Conventional oil has an EROEI averaging 10:1 or so, but that ratio is getting smaller each year (dropping from the early days of oil extraction when EROEI ratios sometimes topped 50:1). No informed person, not even the most enthusiastic ethanol advocate, believes that corn-based ethanol will have an EROEI exceeding 2:1. Some studies report an EROEI of less than 1:0. By and large, the differences in the studies can be accounted for by (a) what energy inputs get included and excluded, (b) the extent to which the by-products used in the distilling process get counted as independent useful energy, (c) the extent to which the study discounts corn production levels for marginal land that would be employed as corn production ramps up, and (d) the extent to which the study assumes the use not only of corn but of the biomass (stalks, leaves, etc.). The more biomass a farmer pulls from the field and uses for cellulosic ethanol, the faster he or she will ruin the soil so that it cannot be used for growing.

It’s hard to communicate how pitifully small this EROEI is. Suffice it to say that large-scale corn-based ethanol offers little or no useful energy dividend; When you strip away the breathless hype and the feel-good promotion, it’s basically a way for politicians campaigning in Iowa to win points with the voters of one state.

The World Is Already Figuring This Out

When we first started talking about how silly it was to grow corn to produce ethanol, we felt almost alone in saying so. Now we have lots of company. A 2006 study for the National Academy of Sciences estimated that if we divert every corn plant in America to the production of ethanol (sorry, no more high fructose corn syrup for your Coke or Baby Ruth bar), we would be able to produce at most 12% of the gasoline supply needed.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, has called for a five-year moratorium on the diversion of food crops for food. In a report published in August of 2007 – no longer available online – he said this:

The sudden, ill-conceived, rush to convert food — such as maize, wheat, sugar and palm oil — into fuels is a recipe for disaster. There are serious risks of creating a battle between food and fuel that will leave the poor and hungry in developing countries at the mercy of rapidly rising prices for food, land and water. If agro-industrial methods are pursued to turn food into fuel, then there are risks that unemployment and violations of the right to food may result, unless specific  measures are put in place to ensure that biofuels contribute to the development of small-scale peasant and family farming. Instead of using food crops, biofuels should be made from non-food plants and agricultural wastes, reducing competition for food, land and water.

The subsidy-soaked ethanol boom appears to be waning already. An investor who put up $100 into ethanol production at the beginning of 2007 had $75 to show for it by the end of November, a loss of 25%. The price of ethanol has fallen by 30% while the price of crude oil has increased more than 50%.

The ethanol industry, largely a creature of taxpayer largesse and solely dependent on it, now is pursuing a desperation survival strategy: convince the Congress and the President to mandate larger percentages of ethanol in the gasoline sold to motorists. But for once, their money, power, and influence in Congress is being matched gift for gift, party for party, and wink for wink by the livestock producers, packaged food producers who want cheap corn and by the energy industry which abhors the competition. Never one to miss a trend, the Wall Street Journal, the guiding light for the monied classes, ran a cover story in November of 2007 entitled Ethanol Craze Cools as Doubts Multiply.