Corn is not the answer Ethanol: more hype than hope

Driving. Nothing is more American. Nothing is more central to our lives. Since the first cars rolled off Henry Ford’s assembly lines, the car has been integral part of our lives and economy. One in six jobs revolves around the car. We are dependent upon the car which makes us dependent upon oil . . . foreign oil.

As the price of gas has risen, we have increased our grumbling but kept on driving. We want cheap fuel! The Bush Administration tells us that increased domestic oil production and alternative energy sources such as ethanol will reduce our dependency on foreign oil. President Bush has proclaimed that ethanol is “good for our air, its good for our economy and its good for our national security.”

Supporters claim ethanol as a cleaner, renewable fuel. Researchers at the University of Minnesota have found that ethanol “produces 12 percent less greenhouse gases linked to global warming.” While there are various sources of ethanol, the focus in our nation has turned to corn-based ethanol. Major corporations such as ADM have lobbied Congress, and the National Corn Growers Association tells us that there is plenty of corn to meet all needs. Now members of Congress and the Bush Administration are promoting corn-based ethanol as an essential element in solving our nation’s energy problems.

Ethanol sounds like the answer, but should we buy the hype?

While the use of ethanol would release less greenhouse gases, its production has greater environmental impact than gasoline.

First, at present, the production of ethanol requires the use of large amounts of non-renewable, fossil fuels. Diesel is used in all aspects of corn production: planting, fertilizing, harvesting and delivery. Coal-produced electricity is used in the conversion of corn into ethanol. And, again, diesel is used in the delivery of ethanol to refineries. The production of ethanol increases greenhouse gases.

Second, it takes more energy to produce ethanol than the energy it provides. Specifically, it takes 131,000 BTUs to produce a gallon of ethanol with an energy value of only 77,000 BTUs. This makes for a net loss of 54,000 BTUs. “Put another way,” said David Pimental, a leading agricultural expert from Cornell University, “about 70 percent more energy is required to produce ethanol than the energy that actually is in ethanol.”

Third, ethanol requires vast amounts of land. Even if every acre of corn were used in ethanol production, only 12 percent of motor fuel needs would be met. Since the Department of Energy has set a goal that ethanol should account for 30 percent of motor fuel by 2030, more land would need to be shifted away from food production. Increasing corn production for ethanol could put our food supply at risk.

Fourth, as corn production increases to meet the demand for ethanol, there will be greater amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous and pesticide run-off into the waterways. According to the University of Minnesota study, increasing the number of acres under cultivation could lead to less clean water, threatening the environment and the health of Americans.

Supporters of ethanol want us to believe that ethanol is an important piece of energy security for America. Don’t buy the hype! Ethanol can not replace gasoline or diesel. Ethanol is not an environmentally friendly fuel. Ethanol is not the answer.

There are better alternatives available.

A cheap alternative is used cooking oil. Thousands of restaurants throughout the country throw out 8 billion gallons each year. Cars simply need to undergo an inexpensive conversion and find a restaurant that wants to get rid of their used oil. But, this would be a mere drop in the barrel and, thus, only part of the answer.

Other alternatives include hybrid cars, which are being produced in greater numbers, and hydrogen-fueled cars, which are a few years away from mass production. The federal government and the auto industry must increase their investment to make these cars readily available to the average American.

The cheapest, easiest and most realistic way to reduce environmental damage and lessen our dependency on foreign oil would be to increase fuel efficiency. The technology exists, but the auto industry needs to be pushed. The federal government simply needs to require increased fuel efficiency. This would reduce our consumption of oil and reduce greenhouse gases.

Ethanol is not the answer, but the solutions are at our fingertips. Increasing fuel efficiency and developing alternatives would reduce our dependency on oil. This would be good for our environment, our economy and our national security.

Scott Key is a faculty member at Fresno Pacific University whose Ph.D. is in public policy analysis from the University of Illinois. At FPU, he teaches in the School of Humanities, Religion, and Social Sciences as well as