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Energy Independence Goes Awry: Why the Ethanol Boom May Turn Conservation Land into Corn Fields

Given America's enthusiasm for ethanol production, one might assume ethanol is a miracle fuel, sent from heaven to lead the way to independence from oil.
 
 
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President Obama set the goal of moving America to 80-percent clean energy by the year 2035 in the State of the Union, only days after the EPA announced a decision to allow higher levels of corn-based ethanol in more vehicles. Obama did not mention ethanol in his speech, specifically, but he did call on us to "break our dependence on foreign oil with biofuels." And just before Christmas, Congress voted for a one-year extension of ethanol subsidies. Ethanol seems to get support on both sides of the aisle, as new House Agriculture Committee chair Frank Lucas, R-OK, has suggested removing acres of land from a conservation program in order to grow more corn for ethanol.

However, some say that ethanol is only marginally better than oil, and some blame ethanol for high global food prices. So what is the truth about ethanol? Is it the miracle fuel that will lead us to energy independence?

About 40 percent of U.S.-grown corn now goes to produce ethanol. In the last decade, ethanol production has risen dramatically, both in terms of total corn used (from 0.6 billion bushels in 2000 to 4.9 billion bushes in 2010) and as a percent of U.S. corn (from 8 percent in 2000 to 43 percent in 2010). In the same decade, U.S. farmers increased the number of acres planted in corn from 80 million in 2000-2001 to 88 million in 2010-2011. Increases in corn yields during the same period provided a 25-percent net increase in annual corn production over the course of the decade. But even with the increase in production, the price of corn soared, from around $2 per bushel at the dawn of the new millennium to $3, $4 and even $5 per bushel over the last several years.

Given America's enthusiasm for ethanol production, one might assume that ethanol is a miracle fuel, sent from heaven to lead the way to independence from oil. (One might especially believe this if he or she works on Capitol Hill, where the entire metro station was wallpapered with ethanol ads last June, reminding lawmakers that "no wars have been fought over ethanol," and "ethanol money does not support dictatorships.") But sources as diverse as Mother Earth News and Popular Mechanics provide evidence to the contrary.

Corn ethanol provides 1.3 Btu in energy for every 1 Btu consumed in producing and delivering it, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory. A paper by SUNY professor Charles Hall defines this measure as EROI, Energy Return on Investment. According to Hall, a sustainable fuel should have an EROI above 5 to 1. Oil falls short of this measure with an estimated EROI of 3 to 1, if the measure accounts for the infrastructure and energy required to extract, refine and transport the end product. But ethanol, with an EROI of 1.3 to 1, falls even shorter. Measured in EROI, natural gas, wind, hydroelectric, and even firewood all rate better than either oil or corn-based ethanol.

If ethanol is such an inefficient fuel, why are U.S. policies so favorable to it? Popular Mechanics chalks it up to money. Specifically, the money that goes to commodity growers who profit from ethanol and the money -- and political influence bought with that money -- of giant agribusinesses like Archer Daniels Midland. That kind of power has won them (or bought them) the support of Washington heavyweights like Wes Clark and Newt Gingrich. Tellingly, the CEO of Growth Energy, the pro-ethanol group co-chaired by Clark, is none other than Tom Buis, the former president of the National Farmers Union, who has years of experience working on Capitol Hill. Small wonder that agriculture and farming interests favor ethanol, especially if it is responsible for the high commodity prices of the last few years.

 
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