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Corn Ethanol: The Great Boondoggle

Corn Ethanol The Great Boondoggle

EROEI stands for Energy Return on Energy Invested. It is a way of describing how much energy you need to use to ‘mine’ more energy. Here is a chart to bring you up to speed on EROEI:

A breakeven EROEI of 1 = You burn 1 barrel of oil to pump 1 barrel of oil out of the ground. (1 retrieved / 1 burnt = 1)
A winning EROEI of 4 = You burn 1 barrel of oil to pump 4 barrels of oil out of the ground. (4 retrieved / 1 spent = 4)
A losing EROEI of 0.5 = You burn 2 barrels of oil to pump 1 barrel of oil out of the ground. (1 retrieved / 2 spent = 0.5)

Basically anything with an EROEI greater than 1 is good. And anything less than one is very bad as you are losing energy in the process. Many ethanol critics will point to a study performed by Berkeley’s Tad Patzek and Cornell’s David Pimentel which says corn ethanol requires 29 percent more fossil energy than what you can get out of it.[1] Doing some quick math that means it’s EROEI is 1/1.29 = 0.77. Yet the USDA reports [2, 3] say ethanol is a net energy gain. Why the discrepancy? Well to make a long story short the USDA is doing some fancy accounting with by-products. The widely referenced chemical engineer Robert Rapier says: “The only way the energy balance gets into positive territory is that by-product credit.” This by-product credit is plant matter that is processed into makeshift animal feed.

Corn by-product animal feed

The calories are counted as fuel energy and added on top of the ethanol that is produced. Without this animal feed corn based ethanol is a net loss of energy. If you add this animal feed in you get into the positive but the amount of gain is not very significant. If you are required to transport the corn long distances for processing then even this animal feed can’t push ethanol back into the positive. Corn is just too bulky and low energy to transport efficiently. A semi-truck simply can’t haul enough corn to fuel itself over any appreciable distance. There are other problems with the USDA study. First of all the USDA report has not been published in peer-reviewed journals. Secondly Robert Rapier has found some fancy accounting techniques that he refers to as a “sophisticated sleight of hand”. Still, the fact is that the peer reviewed literature says ethanol is not a net energy gain. Scientific papers that have not undergone peer review generally do not have a very good track record when it comes to accuracy. And any single report that is written by a USDA employee does not necessarily represent the opinions of everyone at the USDA. Even if you use the most optimistic and controversial of the ethanol reports you only have an EROEI of 0.9 before the by-product credits.

The Scalability:

Doug Carper, president of commodity trading company DEC Capital inc. says:

“Even if every bushel of corn in the United States were turned into ethanol, it wouldn’t make much of a dent in overseas oil dependence”

In a interview with via theWatt Berkeley’s Tad Patzek said:

In fact, we are told that if we just behave like the Brazilians we will be okay, we will be supplying more than half of our fuel from biofuels. Well, there is a problem with this argument. There are 182 million Brazilians or so, there are 300 million Americans. The Brazilians use 6½ billion gallons of gasoline per year and the Americans use 140 billion gallons of gasoline per year. You do the ratios of the populations and the fuel used and it turns out that if you and I drive only once in two weeks, once in 14 days, so one day we drive, 13 days we walk or bike, then we become equivalent to the Brazilians. So, I just want listeners to understand that in order for us to talk about biofuels playing an important role we would have to very, very dramatically change our lifestyles and that is actually not something that any of the listeners I presume is ready to do.

It should also be noted that the Brazilians do not use corn. They are using sugar cane which is far more efficient and is limited to tropical regions. This article is limited to discussing the viability of corn based ethanol production only. Sugar cane ethanol has it’s own problems such as competing for land with the rainforest. There are some US biofuels that are viable such as biodiesel and small scale E3 biofuels but large scale ethanol production is not a possibility without revolutionary breakthroughs in cellulosic ethanol. There are several very promising electron based technologies that could end up being far superior than oil. Some of these include super-caps, nanotubes, and solid state batteries. The point of this article is not to kill hope but to simply show that corn based ethanol simply does not have a future.

The Bottomless Subsidy:

The NTU estimates every dollar of ethanol profit costs taxpayers $30. On a grand scale these are the numbers as calculated by Robert Rapier:

To be extremely generous, we are paying taxpayer costs of $3 billion a year to displace less than half a percent of our gasoline usage. That’s about $3.60 in federal subsidies (of course most corn states throw in their own subsidies) for each gallon of gasoline displaced

Please keep in mind the $3.60 does not include what you have to pay for ethanol at the pump. You have to add those costs ontop of the ethanol subsidies. The Global Securities Initiative (GSI) performed another study which includes tax supported benefits which were overlooked by the NTU study. The total taxpayer cost according to GSI is between $5.5 and $7.3 billion a year for biofuels.

So why all this waste? Well to make a long story short a group called Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) is a very powerful force in American politics as well as the world market. To get a decent grasp of just how powerful ADM is, feel free to listen to “The Fix is In” from This American Life. ADM is the biggest beneficiary of the multibillion dollar subsidy and as of November 2005 it owned 7 ethanol plants.

When McCain ran for president in 1999 & 2000 he all but skipped corn country knowing his anti-ethanol stance wouldn’t stand a chance. Four years later he still hadn’t changed his tune:

“Ethanol is a product that would not exist if Congress didn’t create an artificial market for it. No one would be willing to buy it … Yet thanks to agricultural subsidies and ethanol producer subsidies, it is now a very big business – tens of billions of dollars that have enriched a handful of corporate interests – primarily one big corporation, ADM. Ethanol does nothing to reduce fuel consumption, nothing to increase our energy independence, nothing to improve air quality.”
In August of 2006 McCain did a complete flip flop. At a speech in Grinnell Iowa McCain said: “I support ethanol and I think it is a vital, a vital alternative energy source not only because of our dependency on foreign oil but its greenhouse gas reduction effects,” Brown University presidential politics expert Darrell West responded with a quip: “Well, at least now we know he’s serious about running for president.”

The Poisonous Animal Feed:

Cows are designed to eat cellulose. Their natural diet consists of grass, hay, and other fibrous forage. The corn-ethanol byproduct is high in starch and not cellulose. The cows can’t handle the high starch diet as it acidifies their stomachs. The starch makes them fat and tears apart their livers. So you have to inject them with antibiotics just to keep them alive. The following is a picture of an abscessed liver caused by high starch animal feed.

Abscessed liver caused by corn by-product

Source: OK State CVM

Starch fed cattle tend to become breeding grounds for the E. coli O157:H7 bacterium. This bacterium is a common cause of illnesses in humans such as diarrhea, fever, and, in rare cases, fatal kidney failure.

The Cost of Food:

We have a limited amount of land in the US. And most of prime land is already being farmed. As crops are displaced for fuel then the cost of corn based products, including meat, will go up. This is a strain that is already being felt in the food industry. Another thing to remember is grass fed beef is generally of higher quality then corn fed beef. If you removed the government ethanol/corn subsidies it would be much cheaper to feed the animals giant miscanthus or switchgrass. Grass fed beef is widely considered a high grade delicacy and a step up from corn fed beef.

The Greenhouse Gases:

Steven Chu, who shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1997, says:

“From the point of view of the environment,” explains Chu, “it would be better if we just burnt oil.”

Harvard and Columbia University’s Professor Michael McElroy writes:

The balance in terms of emission of greenhouse gases is close to a wash for the United States: the reduction in net emissions of carbon dioxide obtained by using corn rather than petroleum as a “feedstock” for motor fuel is largely offset by additional emissions of the several hundredfold more potent greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide, formed as a byproduct of the nitrogen fertilizer used to grow the corn.

This is while we are using natural gas to make the corn. If we switch to coal for the distillation process then the situation will only get worse.

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