America needs smart alternative to oil, but the just-passed energy bill puts too much emphasis on the wrong alternative, Popular Mechanics editor-in-chief says
By James B. Meigs, Published in the February 2008 issue. Popular Mechanics
The idea is so appealing: We can reduce our dependence on oil—stop sending U.S. dollars to corrupt petro-dictators, stop spewing megatons of carbon into the atmosphere by replacing it with clean, home-grown, all-American corn. It sounds too good to be true. Sadly, it is. (To continue Reading: The Ethanol Fallacy… )
For those who are pleased that the recent energy bill mandates an increase in use of ethanol, I encourage you to read the above article. The recent energy bill passed by congress and which President Bush says he will sign is a bad bill for several reasons, the primary of which is the mandating of the use of Ethanol. I don’t expect President Bush do it, but this bill deserves to be vetoed and Congress needs to work on an energy bill that will actually accomplish something. This energy bill is similar to issuing bailing pails to passengers on the Titanic. The passengers can conclude that it is better than doing nothing and as they drown they can feel good about the management of the Titanic.
Instead of calling this an Energy Bill, it should be called the Farm Aid Bill part 2. Archer Daniels Midland will be the chief benefactor; not the environment. Instead of setting goals and relying on market forces, competition, and experimentation to find the best mix of alternative technologies and conservation strategies for achieving the objectives, the bill declares ethanol the winner. Government is not very good at picking technologies. The bill mandates the use of 15 billion gallons of ethanol by 2015, which is three times today’s production.
Corn based ethanol is not a solution. For one thing, it takes a lot of energy to produce a gallon of ethanol; the net energy production is almost nothing. The best estimate by those who do the math is that to produce 1.3 Btu of ethanol energy it takes 1 Btu. Others do the math differently and conclude there is a net loss of energy in producing ethanol.
Another thing wrong with relying on ethanol is that it is detrimental to the environment. It takes a lot of fertilizer, insecticide and land to produce corn. In 2007 more land was used in the production of corn than anytime since 1944, when the yield per acre was much less. To meet the goal of tripling of ethanol production, much more land will have to go into production. Almost all of the run-off from the land used in corn production ends up flowing into the Mississippi River, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Already there is a 7900 square mile “dead zone” in the gulf caused by the depletion of oxygen, which is caused by the Nitrogen-based fertilizer run-off. In the dead zone, no fish, crabs, mussels or sea life live. With this bill we can watch the Gulf of Mexico become the Dead Sea. (Read more: Corn Boom Could Grow Dead Zone)
Much of the enthusiasm for ethanol in the US is a result of the success Brazil has had in weaning itself off oil and going almost wholly to ethanol. This however, has not been without environmental consequences. A lot of global-warming-emission- eating rain forests have had to be cut down to turn the land into sugar cane growing land. Nevertheless, on balance, Brazil's switch to ethanol may be net plus for the environment. One major difference between Brazilian ethanol and American ethanol however, is the Brazilian ethanol is made from sugar cane which is eight times as efficient as making ethanol from corn. (To read more: With Big Boost From Sugar Cane)
Despite the greater efficiency of Brazilian ethanol, against all logic the US maintains a 65-cent per gallon tariff on the importation of Brazilian ethanol. If we are serious about doing something about American global warming emissions, we should start by scrapping this ethanol energy bill, repeal the import tariff on foreign ethanol, then set limits on the amount of allowable global warming greenhouse emissions and enforce that limit by taxing carbon emissions or by the selling of pollutions rights. Then the government should get out of the way and let the market work.