The unhealthy truth about ethanol

This is a guest post from Tom Philpott at Grist.

Yes, this is another bitter polemic against ethanol, but I want to make one point up front, because I sometimes forget to: The only concrete alternative energy/climate policy that our political class can agree on -- a plan that unites Democrats and Republicans to commit some $5 billion per year and rising -- is a clear and obvious boondoggle: a cash sieve that has done and will do much more harm than good.

This is our main public intervention into the energy markets on behalf of "alternative fuel"? The opportunity costs alone are staggering. Say what you want about Amtrak, but its annual federal budget amounts to about $1 billion per year. I suppose building out a woefully inadequate train system doesn't quite match the urgency of churning out flex-fuel Hummers and the like.

OK, where was I? David's post on "us corn hatas" reminded me that I hadn't commented on a recent Foreign Affairs piece on the food vs. fuel debate.

And while I'm at it, I should note that a Stanford scientist has concluded that ethanol -- whether made from corn, switchgrass, or rose petals -- may cause greater health damage than gasoline.

The Foreign Affairs article states bluntly that corn ethanol mania will unforgivably drive up food prices for poor people worldwide -- without delivering much in the way of environmental benefits.

That's pretty strong stuff, coming as it does from a pair of mainstream Minnesota ag economists writing to an audience of policy elites. There may be deep fissures in elite opinion toward throwing a bunch of money at corn-based fuel after all.

As for the grand hope of cellulosic ethanol, here's what the authors have to say:
The logistical difficulties and the costs of converting cellulose into fuel, combined with the subsidies and politics currently favoring the use of corn and soybeans, make it unrealistic to expect cellulose-based ethanol to become a solution within the next decade.
So cellulosic is ten years off -- not five, the timeframe its boosters have been flogging for the last, oh, 15 years.

And it might not be worth the wait. Here's how the L.A. Times summarizes Stanford researcher Mark Jacobson's findings:
The study determined that a 9 percent increase in ozone-related deaths would occur in greater Los Angeles, and a 4 percent increase nationally, by 2020 if a form of ethanol called E85 were used instead of gasoline. In the Southeast, by contrast, mortality rates would decrease slightly.

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