The Ethanol Delusion: There Is No Free Lunch

By David L. Brown

Star Phoenix Base has commented in depth on the fact that ethanol—whether made from corn, switchgrass, or another farm crop—is not a good answer to our nation’s oil dependence. There are many reasons for this, which we have covered in the following postings (you can find them by searching the site archives):

  1. Switchgrass…Energy Source of the Future? Not!
  2. Ethanol and the Second Law
  3. A Glorious Delusion: Turning Topsoil to Fuel
  4. Sending More Pork to the Farm?
  5. Nation’s Soils to Lose Big as Ethanol Ramps Up

Now we are disturbed to read of a new movement aimed at putting pressure on government and oil companies to vastly increase the use of ethanol as a substitute for gasoline. The issue is introduced by actor and environmental activist Robert Redford in a guest essay he wrote for CNN.com (Read it here). Redford refers to a variety of alternative energy programs, but then focuses on one with which we cannot agree—ethanol.

Star Phoenix Base is as concerned as anyone can be about the energy crisis facing our nation, but the reality of agricultural science and economics cannot support a major move to ethanol as an “easy answer” to these problems. And yet, that is exactly what the movement Redford supports is advocating.

The program is sponsored by a group of politically activist organizations including the ultra-left moveon.org. As Redford describes the ethanol initiative in his CNN article:

Recently, a dynamic new campaign launched to seize and grow these opportunities and break our energy dependence. It’s called KickTheOilHabit.org, and it has the backing of a diverse coalition of organizations. Its first action was to challenge oil companies to double the number of renewable fuel pumps at their stations within the year and pledge to offer E85 ethanol fuel at half of all gas stations within the decade.

As the organization states, E85 fuel is now available at only 600 stations, and there are 170,000 total stations in the U.S. That means they are advocating increasing the number of statons that offer this alternative fuel from 600 to 85,000. That is an enormous increase of 142 times the present level. It would be wonderful if this new alternative to oil could help us throw off our dependence on OPEC. But, we cannot, and for a simple reason: The U.S. already is using 15 percent of our corn crop to produce ethanol, most of which is used in 10 percent gasohol blends rather than the 85 percent blend the group advocates.

It must also be noted that ethanol is not a renewable resource as Redford apparently believes, because it “mines” our nation’s precious and already threatened topsoil and is wasteful of other resources as well, including energy. We are already farming land that should not be under the plow, using water resources that are limited and valuable for producing food, and utilizing large amounts of energy—mostly in the form of oil!— to plant, grow, harvest and transport the corn.

Ramping up production by more than 100 fold is impossible, but if we were to even attempt to double our corn crop it would be an ecological and economic disaster for America and the world, where hungry billions count on us as the primary source of imported food. In fact, agricultural exports are a major part of our balance of trade, so what sense does it make to divert that valuable resource to replace another resource that we must import?

One of the sad facts about American society is the almost total disconnect between the farm and non-farm populations. People who have grown up in the city, which means the vast majority of Americans today, have little or no idea about what is involved in agricultural production. They do not know the limitations of the land, or the high cost of production. This writer, who has been engaged in agricultural journalism for four decades, must regretfully report that ethanol can never be more than a small part of the solution to our oil dependence. There is no one simple “fix” to our problems, and we must look to sustainable resources such as wind and solar rather than “mining” our precious topsoil.

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