First large U.S. deployment of biofuels is an economic and environmental disaster

A decade ago it seemed like a great idea. Ethanol would be an additive or replacement for gasoline and diesel. It comes from the sun, water, and good old Mother Earth (soil). It would replace fossil fuels like petroleum that add to greenhouse gas which is changing the climate. It would also increase the income of farmers as demand for corn rose. A new fuel industry would weaken the power of oil king coal and the oil corporations with their blowouts, leaky tankers, pipelines, and drill pads stretching to the horizon.

Now times are changing again.

Biofuel promoting laws-

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 and the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 were intended to move photosynthesis in as a major power source for our motor vehicle fleet. We could tell the Saudis we would just grow our own fuel. These laws mandated that gasoline refiners blend in 4.7 billion gallons of ethanol (ethyl alcohol, the kind you drink). Each year the EPA would see that more billions were added, and they did. The EPA kept up the pressure for more. Motorists saw the now familiar “fuel may contain up to 10% ethanol. There was growing pressure to move to 15 per cent ethanol, but now after enormous side effects and reverse pressure from traditional energy, automobile manufacturers and from environmentalists, the EPA is reversing its stance. This year slightly less ethanol will be required.

What happened?

At first ethanol had little negative effect on traditional petroleum refining. In fact it replaced the suspect additive MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether) in gasoline. MTBE was a oxygenate supposed to clean tailpipe emissions, but had become a suspected carcinogen which readily mixed with water in the air, lakes, streams and even aquifers.

Ethyl alcohol can come from many biological sources as any drinker knows: potatoes, wheat, sugar cane, barley, grapes, rice, agave, and corn. In terms of fuel grade alcohol in the United States, fuel ethanol has almost always been derived from corn. There has been much experimentation in producing “cellulosic ethanol” which promises use of many other plants and more parts of any plant. After all the useful sugar in corn only comes from the corn kernels on the cob. The rest of the plant is discarded or has other uses. So part of just one food plant provides almost all the fuel ethanol in the United States. In other places such as Brazil, sugar cane was put to use, and it was much more productive per unit of biomass than corn. The failure to use most of the corn plant has always been recognized as a major hindrance to the efficient production of ethanol.

The huge resource requirements of corn-

From the start there was fear that corn ethanol fuel might just barely contain as much potential energy as the total amount of energy from other sources used to make the ethanol. It really isn’t just earth, water and sun yielding ethanol. Growing, harvesting, processing and distilling corn into ethanol takes great amounts of oil, natural gas (for fertilizers), and other kinds of energy. Corn is planted and tended by machines that use gasoline or diesel. Corn must be fertilized. The crop otherwise quickly depletes the soil. Harvesting takes more machinery. Fermentation, processing, and distillation of the alcohol requires still more.

Net energy?

Most now agree that corn ethanol production does have a slightly positive energy balance, but using this as a judge sets an incredibly low bar. Sugar cane, on the other hand has about an 8 to 1 surplus of energy content versus energy used to produce. U.S. corn ethanol is only about 1.5 to 1. You also have to consider that when you burn as fuel, a gallon of ethanol only has about 2/3 the energy (mileage) as conventional gasoline, which is mostly iso-octane from the refining of petroleum oil.

The money and the ethanol flowed-

American agriculture policy has long had an increase in farm income as a goal. This part of the ethanol fuel policy worked well for parts of the ag sector of the economy. Government subsidies and mandates fueled a large increase in acres planted to corn . . . 97 million acres planted in 2013 in the United States. More impressive was the increase in yield as more fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides and controversial GMO corn was used. While it is hard to sort out the effect of demand for ethanol on the price of corn, a major study showed the “price of corn between 2006 and 2012 was 34 percent higher than otherwise would have been the case because of rising ethanol production.” Corn farmers and those that grow substitutes for corn were happy indeed as their returns grew.

The fact that Iowa is a tremendous corn state and an early presidential caucus state helped the ethanol program.

The environmental side effects-

There is more to environmental protection than fighting the emission of more greenhouse gases. In general the side effects of fighting emissions is becoming an environmental issue. Corn ethanol is a good example of this.

Unlike some crops, corn does not hold the soil. Hilly country is not good corn country, but if the price of corn rises, some of this will be planted anyway with a big runoff of soil, fertilizer and pesticides. More likely is that crops displaced by corn will be moved to the hilly (and otherwise marginal) acres. This will often have similar effects although perhaps not as severe as corn.

Much of the wildlife in heavily agricultural states such as Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, southern Minnesota, the eastern Dakotas depends on the uncultivated land left next to the backroads, fences, utility corridors, swells, depressions, abandoned right-of-ways, prairie potholes, and other wet places. Much of this has now been plowed under in one of the greatest attacks on wildlife habitat in the area in generations. See: Biofuel Growth Is Decimating Wildlife Habitat in Corn Belt. By Bob Marshall. Field and Stream. The National Wildlife Federation has a more comprehensive report. One of the findings is that plowing these lands releases (you guessed it) a lot of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas corn ethanol is supposed to be fighting. 

The extra farm chemicals and the increased runoff due to planting in marginal areas now threatens the drinking water in corn areas, not to mention the creek, river, pond and lake water for fish and wildlife. The quantity of water is an issue too. “In the distillation process that turns corn into alcohol, ethanol production plants currently use about 4 gallons of water to produce a gallon of fuel, more than twice the rate of water usage for refining gasoline (see, “Ethanol and Water, page 1.

Other biofuels-

There are many possible biofuels than corn. As we have seen,  sugar cane has a much better net energy profile. Cellulosic ethanol would allow use of whole plants including woody ones. Biofuel would not be a diversion of food to fuel. However, cellulosic ethanol (essentially making wood fiber into alcohol) is barely post-experimental. Corn ethanol, on the other hand, is a big industry employing many people.

Some actual production plants are underway for cellulosic ethanol, but many have been cancelled too. The price of gasoline has fallen and alternatives are very sensitive to price. Driving also seems to be in a secular (long term decline) despite the continuing cliche of how Americans love their cars. Despite all this, biofuels other than corn ethanol seem to be a better way than just relying on traditional fossil fuels.

The recent turnaround at the EPA was hardly the result of environmentalists lobbying. The change came from the vastly superior forces from the traditional energy lobby. You can see it right now by searching for stories on this issue. Newspapers in the farm states bemoan what the EPA has done, but in the oil states like Texas editorials are very pleased.

Many of the critiques found are from sources that don’t even believe there is human caused climate change. For example, read this from the intensely anti-environmental Forbes Magazine. 

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Here is one important note. Over 95% of the corn not made into ethanol is used as feed or feedstock for livestock — it’s not corn on the cob for Sunday dinner. Note also that about a third of corn used for ethanol eventually becomes livestock feed as distillers dry grain (DDG).
A brief overview of the ethanol  issue is, well, too brief.


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About The Author

Ralph Maughan

Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University with specialties in natural resource politics, public opinion, interest groups, political parties, voting and elections. Aside from academic publications, he is author or co-author of three hiking/backpacking guides.

13 Responses to EPA finally starts to reign in the menace of corn ethanol fuel

  1. avatar Mikepost says:

    Ralph’s last point (italics) is the most important. The upward cost of all corn, put pressure on drought plagued ranchers to find alternative feeds and thus the price of hay, etc went thru the roof. With all supplemental feed going skyhigh, ranchers were incentivised to maximize their yields off grazing allotments, many times beyond what even they would have preferred because this has become a survival exercise for many of them…many times they are even abusing their own land because they have no alternatives other than to walk away. The Law of Unintended Consequences.

  2. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    Glad to hear it. A terrible idea – another awful choice is palm oil as a biofuel.

    • avatar Ralph Maughan says:

      Ida Lupine,

      I agree. Interestingly palm oil is another food. There are also potential biofuels that are not food, but which we should not try to turn into ethanol regardless. They need to be identified and protected from exploitation as fuel.

      • avatar Ida Lupine says:

        Yes, thank you. These so-called biofuels are extremely land and water intensive, pollute, poison and displace wildlife, and fail to take into account human nature. Unless you are looking at them strictly as an alternative energy source (which our current Administration increasingly seems to be concerned with only) – but to me, calling something ‘green’ or ‘bio’ means taking the entire environment and the effects of our activities, into account. Palm oil with its wanton destruction of rain forests and the animals that live there is truly frightening (remember the illegal fires for land clearing that clouded the air this year) and isn’t deserving of being called a biofuel. It’s in everything in our food products here in the US (must be cheap?) and labeling isn’t straightforward, but I do avoid products using it.

        • avatar Nancie Mccormish says:

          Ida, I was surprised to see this video earlier this year which connected soot drifting from fires greatly decreasing the albedo of Greenland’s ice, hastening melt. So burning anything which creates and disperses particulates in an attempt to reduce carbon emissions exacerbates precisely what it intends to alleviate.

  3. avatar Immer Treue says:

    Perhaps an issue of concern is export of ethanol.
    Last Sundays issue on the Minneapolis Star had a, if I remember correctly, front page story on ethanol. Though I read little of it, the word export loomed large. If money is to be made…

  4. avatar CodyCoyote says:

    Now let’s get to work on weaning the food supply chain of high fructose corn syrup…

  5. It’s really sad that the EPA has taken so long to change its policy on ethanol fuel additives. For several years now, real environmentalists (i.e. those who have degrees in environmental sciences) have questioned the so-called positive environmental impact of ethanol and other biomass-related energy sources. Unfortunately, the advocates of growing more corn (i.e. the Archer Daniels Midland Corporation and politicians from the corn belt) hhave pounded into the public conscience the idea that ethanol is a win-win situation when in reality the only winners are the two mentioned above.

    • avatar WM says:

      My friends in the marine industry and some recreational crabbers and fishermen tell me ethanol eats fuel lines and seals, making small engines and even some larger ones inoperable. Not so good if you are using ethanol fuel and your outboard or stern drive engine goes kaput 15-20 miles out at sea, on a sport fishing trip.

      On the other hand the small engine repair folks are happy. The Coast Guard and the fishers not so much.

      • avatar mikepost says:

        …and ethanol also congeals in stored gasoline to produce a gel that will mess up any engine to the point of carb rebuild…

        This type of thing needed a “dust to dust” envirnomental eval before implementation (as does everything like this)…too many unintended consequences from “popular science”.

  6. avatar Matt says:

    So if ethanol is a menace, where does that leave gasoline?
    I’m skeptical that gasoline does LESS damage to the environment than ethanol.


November 2013
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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey

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