Here’s an interesting article about corn ethanol and its having been touted as a viable “alternative fuel” deserving of subsidies and mandates. It just so happens that you don’t improve the environment by switching from petroleum products to ethanol…
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released two of its Working Group reports at the end of last month (WGI and WGIII), and their short discussion of biofuels has ignited a fierce debate as to whether they’re of any environmental benefit at all.
The IPCC was quite diplomatic in its discussion, saying “Biofuels have direct, fuel‐cycle GHG emissions that are typically 30–90% lower than those for gasoline or diesel fuels. However, since for some biofuels indirect emissions—including from land use change—can lead to greater total emissions than when using petroleum products, policy support needs to be considered on a case by case basis” (IPCC 2014 Chapter 8).
The summary in the new report also states, “Increasing bioenergy crop cultivation poses risks to ecosystems and biodiversity” (WGIII).
The report lists many potential negative risks of development, such as direct conflicts between land for fuels and land for food, other land-use changes, water scarcity, loss of biodiversity and nitrogen pollution through the excessive use of fertilizers (Scientific American).
The International Institute for Sustainable Development was not so diplomatic, and estimates that the CO2 and climate benefits from replacing petroleum fuels with biofuels like ethanol are basically zero (IISD). They claim that it would be almost 100 times more effective, and much less costly, to significantly reduce vehicle emissions through more stringent standards, and to increase CAFE standards on all cars and light trucks to over 40 miles per gallon as was done in Japan just a few years ago.
And a bit more…
In 2014, the U.S. will use almost 5 billion bushels of corn to produce over 13 billion gallons of ethanol fuel. The grain required to fill a 25-gallon gas tank with ethanol can feed one person for a year, so the amount of corn used to make that 13 billion gallons of ethanol will not feed the almost 500 million people it was feeding in 2000. This is the entire population of the Western Hemisphere outside of the United States.
In 2007, the global price of corn doubled as a result of an explosion in ethanol production in the U.S. Because corn is the most common animal feed and has many other uses in the food industry, the price of milk, cheese, eggs, meat, corn-based sweeteners and cereals increased as well. World grain reserves dwindled to less than two months, the lowest level in over 30 years.
Additional unintended effects from the increase in ethanol production include the dramatic rise in land rents, the increase in natural gas and chemicals used for fertilizers, over-pumping of aquifers like the Ogallala that serve many mid-western states, clear-cutting forests to plant fuel crops, and the revival of destructive practices such as edge tillage. Edge tillage is planting right up to the edge of the field thereby removing protective bordering lands and increasing soil erosion, chemical runoff and other problems. It took us 40 years to end edge tillage in this country, and overnight ethanol brought it back with a vengeance.
We’ve been saying for some time that the ethanol craze, a crony-capitalist scheme for the ages, was doing real damage to poor people around the world without any benefit to the environment. Overproduction of corn for ethanol, and the resulting dependence on nitrate fertilizers to maintain crop yields has had a real environmental effect, namely the increase in the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico thanks to chemical runoff from Midwest farms in the Mississippi River.
That’s a real environmental effect, not some bogus theoretical discussion of alleged global warming.
The fact is that oil prices have dropped off the table due to the rapid increase in American supply (which has already begun to show a negative effect in the economies of energy-producing states and could trash America’s economy overall, owing to the fact that any economic growth we’ve had in the Obama years has come from the energy industry) and there is no economic rationale for ethanol as a government-imposed energy solution.
In about a year we’ll be treated to the Iowa presidential caucuses. The Republican candidate who openly calls for ethanol to float in the marketplace just like all other transportation fuel sources, with no subsidies or mandates is the one who deserves the nomination.