Ethanol: Is It the Answer?

Gas prices are shooting through the roof. Are alternative fuels the solution we’re looking for?
From the June 2007 Trumpet Print Edition

In the United States, gasoline now costs about $3 per gallon nationwide. And that is for regular grade, not the fancy stuff. In San Francisco, motorists pay about $3.50. With summer on the way, gas prices look set to soar even further.

It is no wonder many drivers are examining the benefits of hybrid vehicles.

But America’s unquenchable gasoline thirst has created two big problems besides high gas prices: foreign oil dependency and environmental pollution. The solution? According to many people, it is corn-based ethanol. But is corn-ethanol really a homegrown, crystal-clear cure for both dilemmas?

Many politicians think so. Since 2001, for example, in each of President Bush’s State of the Union speeches, he has called attention to the importance of energy independence and a clean environment. “For too long our nation has been dependent on foreign oil,” he said in this year’s address. “And this dependence leaves us more vulnerable to hostile regimes, and to terrorists—who could cause huge disruptions of oil shipments, and raise the price of oil, and do great harm to our economy. It’s in our vital interest to diversify America’s energy supply ….” He pointed to the need for more hybrid vehicles, and encouraged and promoted the development of alternative forms of energy, such as ethanol.

America has responded valiantly to such calls to action. Over the past three years, farmers have harvested record crops, sending billions of bushels of maize to the 113 ethanol refineries that have sprouted up across the country—resulting in billions of gallons of fuel. Ten million additional acres devoted to corn are expected to be planted this year to meet demand. Detroit’s giant automobile manufacturers have also stepped up to the plate, churning out cars, trucks, and suvs that can run on the alternative fuel. Politicians have done their part too, approving subsidies for ethanol fermenting and distilling companies while slapping taxes on imported ethanol.

“It’s coming on dramatically; more rapidly than anyone had expected,” said Nathanael Greene, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In fact, ethanol production is growing even faster than farmers can plant and grow additional corn. Ethanol production doubled in three years to almost 5 billion gallons in 2006. Last year’s production alone would fill one sixth of America’s strategic petroleum reserve. With 78 more corn ethanol plants under construction, the country’s ethanol output will likely double again over the next two years.

Corn ethanol may certainly seem like the perfect solution to America’s energy needs. What could be more ideal than turning America’s thousands of acres of cropland into a giant energy source? Ethanol is cleaner burning, plus it reduces dependence on foreign oil, we are told.

But what you may not have been told is that increased corn ethanol production is pushing three of our most fundamental needs—food, secure energy, and a clean, sustainable environment—on course for a head-on collision. So, before you run out and purchase that new environmentally friendly hybrid car, or slap on your “Corn Fed” bumper sticker, you might want to consider the other side of the story.

Solution to Oil Addiction?

If corn ethanol could meaningfully reduce America’s dependence upon foreign oil, it would be hugely beneficial. America would be far more immune to widely fluctuating oil prices, not to mention the threat of oil supply interruptions or oil blackmail by unfriendly nations. Better still, instead of paying tens of billions of dollars each year to hostile or even terrorist-sponsoring nations, America would be sending those billions to American farmers and ethanol refiners. The ramifications associated with U.S. energy self-sufficiency are massive. Oil prices would plummet, and consequently, much of Russia’s and the opec cartel’s power would be severely handicapped, if not broken.

However, some significant factors will most likely prevent that scenario from coming about.

Perhaps the biggest complication with the corn ethanol solution is that, as it is currently produced, America simply doesn’t have enough farmland to break its oil addiction. Corn ethanol production requires massive amounts of land. If America’s entire 2006 corn harvest of 70 million acres was used for ethanol, it would displace just 12 percent of U.S. gasoline consumption.

Then there is the matter of cost. Our oil-based society, fueled by cheap oil, is accustomed to investing relatively small amounts of energy to get big energy returns. Less than 1 gallon of oil will produce 10 gallons of energy. In contrast, it currently takes approximately 3 gallons of invested energy to produce 4 gallons of corn ethanol energy. That includes energy to make the fertilizer, fuel to run the tractors and swathers, and fuel to transport the corn to the ethanol plants. Ethanol cannot be transported in traditional oil pipelines because it corrodes the seals. Until new pipelines able to cope with this challenge are built, ethanol must be shipped from factory to destination by trains, barges or trucks, all of which are fuel intensive. Energy, of course, is also required to transform the corn itself into ethanol.

This energy-intensive process makes corn ethanol more expensive than oil—and is why ethanol refineries themselves use fossil fuels to transform the corn into ethanol.

To make corn ethanol competitive, the government directly subsidizes every gallon of domestically produced ethanol by 51 cents. All told, federal and state governments spent about $6 billion subsidizing ethanol in 2006.

Ethanol supporters rightly point out that once some of the “one time” costs associated with large-scale ethanol conversion are made, ethanol prices would probably come down. As new ethanol pipeline grids are constructed, for example, transportation costs would level off. In addition, future advances in technology may significantly increase ethanol yields per bushel and therefore also reduce the economic costs of ethanol.

And in any case, at least America would reap benefits from a more environmentally friendly fuel by switching to corn ethanol—right? The answer may not be as green as you think.

Environmentally Friendly?

The primary argument of those who espouse the environmental benefits of corn ethanol over oil involves co2, the so-called greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. When corn ethanol is burned, the co2 released is composed of carbon that was already pulled out of the atmosphere by the corn plant. In contrast, when gasoline is burned, it releases carbon that was previously locked away deep within the Earth, thereby resulting in a net increase of co2 in the atmosphere. Most agree that, in and of itself, ethanol adds less co2 to the atmosphere than gasoline does.

Just how beneficial this is environmentally, however, is questionable. In any case, according to Wall Street Journal sources, employing ethanol to reduce greenhouse gasses is “fantastically inefficient,” and costs probably as much as 16 times the optimal abatement cost for removing carbon from the atmosphere (January 27).

It is also true that, as a fuel, ethanol produces less overall pollution on a per-gallon basis than gasoline. However, much of this advantage is negated since a gallon of ethanol contains less energy than a gallon of gasoline. This results in lower vehicle mileage per gallon and means that cars and trucks must burn more ethanol compared to gasoline to travel the same distance. On a per-unit-of-energy basis, ethanol is actually not much cleaner than gasoline. One study from the University of Minnesota reported that emissions of five major air pollutants are actually higher with e85, the ethanol-gasoline blend used in many hybrid vehicles, than with just gasoline. Similarly, some studies have found that although ethanol lowers some smog-causing pollutants, such as carbon monoxide, it actually increases others.

Not only have doubts arisen over the environmental benefits of replacing gasoline consumption with ethanol, but other side effects are also coming to light.

For one, as the demand and consequently supply of corn ethanol increases (due to governmental legislation and subsidies), additional cropland is cultivated and dedicated to corn production. However, today’s corn hybrids require more fertilizer, herbicides and insecticides than almost any other crop. In fact, corn farming substantially tops all crops in total application of pesticides, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The intensive farming methods employed to grow corn often require massive amounts of water and contribute heavily to soil erosion, which results in chemicals leaching into rivers, lakes and drinking water.

Scientists have shown that the widespread use of fertilizers throughout the Mississippi watershed area has largely created the Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone” that appears annually each summer. Fertilizer runoff is said to produce widespread algal blooms in the ocean, which deprive aquatic life of oxygen as they decay; as a result, whole sections of the Gulf become virtual underwater deserts deprived of plant and animal life. Additional farmland devoted to corn crops would worsen this problem.

What’s more, because of the high energy input required to produce ethanol and the methods used, the processing plants themselves are spewing out massive amounts of pollutants into the atmosphere. For example, the federal government recorded that a single corn-processing plant in Iowa produced nearly 20,000 tons of pollutants in 2004, including chemicals that contribute to respiratory problems, acid rain and cancer (CorpWatch, June 1, 2006). The agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland, the U.S.’s largest producer of ethanol, ranks as the country’s 10th-worst corporate air polluter, according to the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts. It has been charged with violating the Clean Air Act at more than 50 of its plants by the Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Impact on Food Costs

Increased corn ethanol production also has serious implications relating to the nation’s food supply.

Corn is used in an amazing percentage of the food Americans put in their mouths each day. Corn chips, corn bread, corn flakes and cornmeal are just a start. Thousands of products contain corn syrup, including soda pop, ketchup, jam, licorice, and a litany of baked goods and sugared treats. Bourbon whiskey and other fermented products, including some beers, also contain corn products. The biggest use of corn in America, however, is as feed for livestock, which means every time you eat that fillet mignon or chicken burger, you are also munching good old corn on the cob.

“People had grown accustomed to $2-per-bushel corn. That’s not going to happen anymore,” says Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association. Why? One fifth of the entire U.S. corn crop is now devoted to ethanol, up from just 3 percent five years ago. At present yields, reaching the president’s stated goal of 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels by 2017 would require the entire U.S. corn harvest. If just the currently planned ethanol factories are built, by as early as next year one half of America’s corn harvest will be going toward corn ethanol.

It’s no wonder the price of corn rose nearly 80 percent in 2006 alone. Although good news for farmers and big grain agribusiness, this is obviously not good news for consumers. Higher food prices are already beginning to ripple through the economy. According to the International Monetary Fund, corn ethanol production is largely responsible for the 10 percent surge in food prices last year.

Of course, when food prices rise, even though all are affected, those usually hurt the worst are those whose food costs take up a larger share of their disposable income—that is, the poor. In Mexico, the price of corn tortillas has risen so much that widespread protests have hit the nation, prompting the government to institute tortilla price controls. In China, the government halted additional construction of ethanol plants for the threat they pose to its food supply.

Never before have we experienced this dilemma between food and fuel. But now that edible material is being used as an alternative to oil on a grand and growing scale, the food landscape has changed forever. “Corn is caught in a tug-of-war between ethanol plants and food,” says Business Week. “A host of unintended consequences could appear” (February 5).

Case Study

Unfortunately, unintended consequences seem to be the norm rather than the exception when it comes to human and scientific advancement. Take the example of Europe’s, and especially the Netherlands’, push to use “environmentally friendly” palm oil as an alternative fuel.

Just a few years ago, politicians and environmental groups praised the Netherlands for its rapid adoption of palm oil as a major component of its strategy for “sustainable energy.” Power plants were built to run off it, and vehicles used it as a substitute for diesel. Like corn ethanol, this bio-fuel was cleaner than oil because it is derived from plants—or so people and legislators were told.

However, when scientists and government regulators began to study palm plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia last year, this “green fairy tale began to look more like an environmental nightmare” (International Herald Tribune, January 31). To supply the rising demand for palm oil in Europe, Southeast Asian farmers cleared huge swaths of rainforest. Since slash-and-burn agriculture and deforestation quickly depleted soils of their fertility, farmers began using massive amounts of fertilizer to maintain productivity. Additionally, space for the expanding palm plantations was often created by draining and burning peat land, which released enormous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Factoring in these emissions, Indonesia quickly became the world’s third-largest producer of what are termed greenhouse gasses—one of the very things the environmentally minded Netherlands was trying to reduce in the first place. The environmental damage caused by palm oil plantations is so great that Dutch Member of Parliament Krista van Velzen says her country should pay reparations to Indonesia.

Similarly, according to a study cited in the Washington Post, when factoring in the extra pollution caused by clearing forests to make room for sugar cane ethanol plantations, it takes at least 20 years of ethanol use to offset the pollution caused by the deforestation in order for the ethanol to become cleaner than gasoline usage (March 25).

The Cause

Why does mankind have so much trouble finding side-effect-free solutions to its troubles? Seemingly good ideas, like growing the fuel to power our society, end up creating more problems than they fix. Why?

Cut off from God and His revealed foundational knowledge, society operates on the wrong principle, and has done so ever since Adam and Eve partook of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3). Society is built upon the way of get as opposed to the way of give. In large part, it is greed and lust that lead to improper farming techniques such as mono-cropping, chemical fertilizer and pesticide use, and forcing the land by not observing land rests. And what else is it but greed and selfishness when people clear-cut forests, or burn peat bogs and rain forests, sending up thousands of tons of thick black pollution into the atmosphere, forcing millions to breathe polluted air?

Competition is often looked upon as a stimulant to scientific advancement. But it is also a huge impediment. Think of all the technology and knowledge that has been repressed or hidden for fear that someone else would steal it or because it would cause corporations to lose money. Think of how much better off mankind could be if we truly and unselfishly, free from political maneuvering, came together to solve the world’s problems.

Unfortunately, this is not possible; mankind, on its own, cannot solve its problems. As long as Satan is the “god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4; Revelation 12:9), who, as “prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2), broadcasts his ideas, moods and emotions and has “blinded the minds” of the world’s inhabitants, mankind will not be able to solve its problems. Man’s problems are beyond him!

There is good news, however! There is a solution.

The Real Solution

But mankind must actively look to God and obey His commandments to be blessed. As Isaiah 29:13 says, people like to just pretend to obey God. If man refuses to listen, God warns, “… I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent” (1 Corinthians 1:19). Continuing on in Isaiah 29:14, the Good News Translation says God “will startle them with one unexpected blow after another. Those who are wise will turn out to be fools, and all their cleverness will be useless.” Until mankind looks to God for solutions, human endeavors will persistently and continually bear that verse out: Startling side effects and unforeseen consequences will be the norm rather than the exception.

The solution to man’s energy needs have stared him in the face since creation. God made the sun, wind and water for human use. But in his greed to get from the earth without giving back to it, man has exploited every other means of energy subject to his own competitive methods rather than devote capital and manpower to the research and development of the use of natural, non-polluting forms of energy. It will take the dramatic intervention of the Creator Himself to turn the world’s addiction to manufactured forms of polluting energy to those natural sources of energy which God created for the benefit of man and his earthly environment.

That intervention will come soon! Vast reforms are about to break out all over the Earth. Satan, the one ultimately responsible for greed and selfishness, is about to be locked up (Revelation 20:1-3). When that happens, your Bible describes a time when God’s government will be set up on Earth. Fighting among nations will end, environmental cleanliness will abound, and abundant cooperation will lead to advances in many areas of human endeavor (see Isaiah 35 and 41). What an amazing future awaits America and the whole world!