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.