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Ethanol: Unintended Consequences

“[Government] intervention that impinges on complex market forces can produce both unpredicted and unpredictable results.”

- Robert Bradley, Oil, Gas, and Government: The U.S. Experience (vol. 2), p. 1791.

Of all the environmental boondoggles of recent years, the biggest must be corn ethanol. As MasterResource’s Ken Green wrote in an article summarizing ethanol’s impact on the environment:

Contrary to popular belief, ethanol fuel will do little or nothing to increase our energy security or stabilize fuel prices. Instead, it will increase greenhouse gas emissions, local air pollutant emissions, fresh water scarcity, water pollution (both riparian and oceanic), land and ecosystem consumption, and food prices.

In a recent speech, Green elaborated, pointing out

the absolute fiasco of corn ethanol, which has caused increases in air pollution, water pollution, freshwater consumption, coastal pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and food prices.

In 1997, the U.S. GAO found that the ethanol production process produces more nitrous oxide and other powerful greenhouse gases than does gasoline production. A decade later, Colorado scientists Jan Kreider and Peter Curtiss concluded that carbon dioxide emissions in the production cycle are about 50 percent higher for ethanol than for traditional fossil fuels.

Making ethanol from cellulosic plants such as switch grass won’t help. In fact, researcher Timothy Searchinger and colleagues calculated that ethanol from switch grass, if grown on U.S. corn lands, would increase greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent compared to using regular gasoline.

Then there’s local air pollution. The EPA says using more ethanol fuel would increase ozone-producing chemicals. Mark Jacobson, a researcher at Stanford University, recently estimated that widespread switching to a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline might increase ozone-related mortality, hospitalization and asthma by about 9 percent in Los Angeles and 4 percent in the United States as a whole.

Green then turned to water usage and water pollution.

Messrs. Kreider and Curtiss estimate that growing and refining corn for a gallon of corn ethanol today requires about 140 gallons of water. That would mean the 5.4 million gallons of corn ethanol used in America in 2006 required the use of 756 million gallons of fresh water.

Things do not look much better for ethanol made from cellulose crops, which require between 146 and 149 gallons of water per gallon of ethanol fuel, depending on the scale of production. To meet the Bush administration’s target of 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels production in the United States by 2017 with cellulosic ethanol would require as much water as flows in the Colorado River every year.

There’s a water pollution issue, as well. The National Academy of Sciences points out that expanding corn-based ethanol production without new environmental protection policies would pose a “considerable” threat to water quality. Corn requires more fertilizers and pesticides than other food or biofuel crops. Pesticide contamination is already highest in the Corn Belt, and nitrogen fertilizer runoff from corn already produces the most serious agricultural impact on the Mississippi River.

Fertilizer runoff does not just pollute local waters. Each summer, the nitrogen fertilizers in the Mississippi hit the Gulf of Mexico, creating a large dead zone–a region of oxygen-deprived waters unable to support sea life that extends for more than 10,000 square kilometers. The same phenomenon occurs in Chesapeake Bay.

A recent study by researchers at the University of British Columbia shows that if the United States were to meet its proposed ethanol production goals of 15 billion to 36 billion gallons of corn and cellulosic ethanol by 2022, nitrogen flows to the Gulf of Mexico would increase by 10 percent to 34 percent.

And then the issues that have been most publicized: land consumption and food prices.

In a February Science article, researchers calculated that projected corn ethanol production in 2016 would require 43 percent of the land harvested for corn in 2004 that otherwise was used to feed livestock. This represents an enormous change in land use–to either replace the grain lost to food production by vastly expanding corn fields–or a significant increase in food prices of the sort we’ve already seen due to scarcity of grain raised for human and livestock consumption.

The environmental movement deserves a major part of the blame for the ethanol boondoggle that is playing out in the United States. Ethanol was introduced as a fuel additive intended to oxygenate fuel, reducing carbon monoxide emissions, and its use spread from there into greenhouse gas control, urged on by environmentalists who wanted to pretend that eliminating gasoline would be cheap and easy. Too many anti-market groups went along with ethanol to promote renewables in general. Only with scientific scrutiny has the truth come out that ethanol is negative, not positive, for the environment in important ways.

Epstein on Ethanol

The latest lament of ethanol’s unintended environmental consequences is Paul R. Epstein’s letter in Saturday’s New York Times. (Epstein is associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School.)

To the Editor:

Re “E.P.A. Says It Expects to Raise Amount of Ethanol Allowed in Fuel Blends to 15%” (Business Day, Dec. 2):

As the Environmental Protection Agency makes plans to raise the amount of ethanol allowed in fuel blends, there is a critical health and environmental issue to consider: burning ethanol/gasoline mixtures produces volatile organic compounds, like formaldehyde, precursors of smog.

Smog (ground-level ozone) is toxic to the lining of the lungs and traps heat, worsening the “urban heat island effect” whereby the average temperatures are 7 degrees Fahrenheit above rural areas, making urban heat waves particularly lethal. Burning biofuels thus increases vulnerability to climate change and the accompanying increase in heat waves.

The best transport solutions are not alternative liquid fuels (from biomass, tar sands or coal). Electric vehicles, plugged into cleanly powered smart grids, and healthy cities linked by light rails, are a complementary set of solutions that serve adaptation and mitigation (climate stabilization), and come with enormous health, economic and environmental co-benefits.

We must learn to burn less of everything and leave fossil fuels in the ground.

The last two paragraphs revert to climate alarmism (and probably a peak oil mentality) and should be discounted. But the first two paragraphs are reason enough for public policymakers to consider the public good of removing ethanol subsidies. Good money should not be thrown after bad.

Consumers, not politicians, should decide the what, when, and where of energy consumption for transportation as for the stationary market. With environmental groups now pressuring the Obama Administration to reverse course, a rare victory for free energy markets could be possible.

Appendix: Ethanol and Unintended Consequences

A Google search for “ethanol and unintended consequences” lists a variety of issues including higher CO2 from land clearance, higher food and fuel prices, “invasive species” growth, and water depletion in dry places such as California. There are undoubtedly more issues—some foreseen but many not—that can be added to this list by readers.


1 Peter Moliterno { 12.07.09 at 11:25 am }

I am an agricultural engineer and have spent my whole career in energy. I tried to buy the closed corn ethanol plant in Mulberry, FL and restart it using citrus molasses and have studied ethanol economics in detail. I wholeheartedly agree that ethanol does not deserve further subsidies and probably should have its subsidies reduced. However, I believe that you are sleeping with the enemy if you cite the work of a bunch of “ecologists” to prevent further ethanol development. I have seen lots of useless studies that claim economically impossible things like using more fossil fuel to make it than it’s worth. You should well know that the market will decide whether there is economic value added.

A free market approach to liquid fuel would be to equalize the road taxes and maybe even eliminate them and fund road construction and maintenance another way. The federal subsidy is not much more than a tax waiver on ethanol when state taxes are included.

The technical side that is usually overlooked is the benefit of removing the low value starch from corn and converting it to ethanol, which has only half the weight but 90% of the fuel value and is in a much more valuable liquid form. It also has an octane value of about 110, so is more valuable than finished gasoline and extends the volume of low octane gasoline that can be used in a blend.

All that said, it can never be more than a supplement to our liquid fuel supply. Cellulosic ethanol is hopeless. It has far more value as a fuel for power generation.

2 Tom Tanton { 12.07.09 at 11:28 am }

It is important to distinguish between unintended and unanticipated—many of us were pointing out for a long time the unintended but probable outcomes. Interestingly, that was met with the epitome of hubris and conceit—even though probable, it wouldn’t happen because “that is not the intention.” Especially interesting in California, as ethanol went from hero to (belatedly) zero in the low carbon fuel debate. I have finally found out just what business California is in–building stranded assets: most recently ethanol production facilities, earlier MTBE, methanol, electric vehicles, LOTs of power plant types, etc.

3 Jon Boone { 12.07.09 at 11:33 am }

Although the negative consequences of wide scale ethanol use may not have been intended by such mainline environmental groups as the Sierra Club, they surely were predictable. Indeed, the primary theme of the environmental movement is the story of how intended adverse consequences result from the uninformed decisions of the well intended. As some may know, the Sierra Club is not known for allowing better information to override its ideology.

As always, the devil is in the details. That the soups to nuts process of converting corn to fuel would actually increase carbon emissions (after factoring all the relevant variables involved) while regressively raising the cost of food, in the process increasing world hunger, came as no surprise, years ago, to Audubon’s Ted Williams, who has made a career from debunking get-rich but flawed energy schemes.

Robert Bryce, in his Gusher of Lies, provides an excellent precis of this scam; in a later chapter, he shows how industrial wind projects are now the electricity sector’s version of ethanol, although even he didn’t quite grasp the full extent of the comparison. As Kent Hawkins, and others, are now showing, wind technology will do little about offsetting greenhouse gas emissions–and may actually increase them on some grids–while also increasing a role for flexible fossil-fired plants.

The lost opportunity costs that devolve from investing so much public funds subventing dysfunctional energy technologies like ethanol and wind are breathtakingly enormous. As Bryce shows, however, at least for ethanol, throwing money down these ratholes will likely continue, given the current nature of our electoral system. Winning Iowa, for example, or even doing well there, means bellying up to the ethanol trough, placating all those farmers who now rely upon the government teat. Even John McCain, who endured so much suffering in Vietnam, succumbed to this political reality in order to advance his campaign.

Perhaps he should have continued to tell the truth….

4 Global Warming Weekly Round-Up, Dec. 10th, 2009 « The Daily Bayonet { 10.12.10 at 3:55 pm }

[...] Ethanol and its unintended consequences just won’t go away. [...]

5 Ethanol: Dirtier Air, More Pollution, Ruined Engines — So the EPA Wants You To Use More! « American Elephants { 10.26.10 at 9:27 pm }

[...] corn-ethanol subsidies cost U.S. taxpayers more than $7 billion a year.   Corn-based ethanol is not supportable on economic, environmental or logistical grounds.  It increases air pollution, water pollution, [...]

6 Ethanol fuel, not as green as you may think | wryheat { 03.01.14 at 5:41 pm }

[…] “In 1997, the U.S. GAO found that the ethanol production process produces more nitrous oxide and other powerful greenhouse gases than does gasoline production. A decade later, Colorado scientists Jan Kreider and Peter Curtiss concluded that carbon dioxide emissions in the production cycle are about 50 percent higher for ethanol than for traditional fossil fuels.” [Source, Ethanol: Unintended Consequences] […]

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