Mandated use of ethanol as a partial substitute for gasoline was supposed to decrease our oil imports and be more environmentally friendly. But like many green fantasies, the program has failed on both counts.
While the mandate may be a boon to corn growers, especially large agribusiness, it is not cost effective for end users. Currently, seasonal gasoline is 10% ethanol, but E85 (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline) is being touted as a solution to our dependence on foreign petroleum sources. Ethanol contains less energy than gasoline. Consumer Reports (Oct., 2006) tested E85 in a 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe FFV (flexible fuel vehicle). CR found that E85 delivered 27% lower mileage compared to gasoline in the same vehicle. The Tahoe traveled 300 miles on a tank of E85 compared with 440 miles on gasoline, so you will have to fill the tank more often with E85, making it more expensive and less efficient.
A new study by Michigan State University economist Soren Anderson says in part: “Federal law requires increasing volumes of renewable fuels to be blended with the nation’s fuel supply. This year, the requirement includes the use of more than 13 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol nationwide. Ethanol is more expensive to make than gasoline and must be sold at a loss or subsidized unless consumers are willing to make up the difference.” “If our goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, this is quite a costly way to go about doing it.”
Corn ethanol, produced in any quantity to make a difference in oil imports, will take massive amounts of land, destroy habitat and forests, and threaten our food supply. It takes 1,700 gallons of water to produce one gallon of ethanol according to a Wall Street Journal report of a Cornell study. A study from Virginia Polytechnic Institute found that “the most water-efficient energy sources are natural gas and synthetic fuels produced by coal gasification. The least water-efficient energy sources are fuel ethanol and biodiesel.” A study by the University of Calgary questions the ethics of burning a food crop for fuel. It also notes that the required land use change results in a net increase of greenhouse gases. Ethanol produced from sugarcane rather than corn has also been touted as a solution. However, a study has shown that when all productions steps are taken into account, the greenhouse gas emissions from sugarcane ethanol are higher than those from burning fossil fuels.
Use of ethanol for transportation fuel has not reduced our petroleum imports. According to the Energy Information Administration, between 1999 and 2009, U.S. ethanol production increased seven-fold, to more than 700,000 barrels per day. During that period, however, oil imports increased by more than 800,000 bl/d.
Burning ethanol-gasoline blends produces more ozone and hence smog which creates a health hazard.
Cellulosic ethanol has been touted as an alternative to corn- or sugar cane based ethanol production. But that too seem economically non-viable. Recently we learned that a cellulosic ethanol plant in Georgia has failed. The project raised $320 million, largely in the form of federal, state, and local subsidies, but the plant never produced a drop of ethanol. Nor did the factory ever hire the 50 to 70 permanent employees its promoters had promised. This shows, again, that the government is incompetent at picking economic winners.
While use of ethanol may have seemed like a good idea at first, there are too many unintended and detrimental consequences. Closer scrutiny shows it fails on too many levels to ever be considered as a viable alternative to fossil fuels.
At the end of 2011, Congress failed to renew the federal tax credit for blending ethanol into gasoline and a 54 cent-per-gallon tariff on imported ethanol. However, the mandate remains. It’s time to get rid of that too.