What Is The Real Cost Of Corn Ethanol?
Score one for the agribusiness lobby.
Consumers Will Pay
Higher Food Prices
The word on the street is that corn futures prices have risen because of the soaring demand for corn to produce corn ethanol. Iowa’s corn ethanol production is projected to exceed 3.6 billion gallons a year. At that rate, corn ethanol production would consume nearly 1.3 billion bushels of corn, or two thirds of the corn Iowa farmers harvested in 2006. Corn for July 2007 delivery, quoted on January 3, 2007, was $3.82 per bushel. That’s a ~ 60 percent increase over the average price for a bushel of corn from 1988 through 2006. But the net increase in the price of food is less than 60%. When processed into corn ethanol, a 56 pound bushel of corn can yield about 16 pounds of distillers grain, gluten meal, and corn oil, thus replacing some of the corn products lost to corn ethanol production. The inflationary impact of higher corn prices is also mitigated by the percentage of corn used in each item of food. The greater the percentage of corn used in the ingredients, the higher the final price paid by a consumer. Final consumer prices will also be driven by the impact of export demand, the efficiency of cultivation (including the use of fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides), the increasing use of lower yield marginal land for corn production, corn belt weather, consumer demand, and the greed (or fear) of Futures Market speculators.Corn prices don’t move in a vacuum. As the price of corn increases, there is a corresponding upward pressure on the price paid for other grains, such as rice and wheat. Poor growing conditions in Europe, the United States, the Ukraine, and Australia; along with low stocks of stored wheat; and an increase in production of biofuels; have combined to push international wheat prices up to levels not seen in 10 years. We can expect the price of bread, pasta, and cereals to increase in 2007.
Probably not. But food prices are headed UP. Families will be forced to spend a greater percentage of their budgets on groceries. Low income families face the specter of possible nutritional deficiency.
More For Fuel
At taxpayer expense.
Congress, anxious to do something – anything – about the price of gasoline, has given the agribusiness industry a mandate it can not refuse. Corn ethanol production must rise from 4.0 billion gallons in 2006 to 7.5 billion gallons by 2012. Anxious to make sure its corn ethanol mandate gets done, Congress has also decided to take our tax money and use it to subsidize the production of ethanol. The current ethanol subsidy is a flat 51 cents per gallon of ethanol paid to the agent (usually an oil company) that blends ethanol with gasoline. Some States add other incentives, all paid by the taxpayer.
But there is more. It costs money to store, transport and blend ethanol with gasoline. Since ethanol absorbs water, and water is corrosive to pipeline components, it must be transported by tanker to the distribution point where it is blended with gasoline for delivery to your gas station. That’s expensive transportation. It costs more to make a gasoline that can be blended with ethanol. Ethanol is lost through vaporization and contamination during this process. Gasoline/ethanol fuel blends that have been contaminated with water degrade the efficiency of combustion. E-85 ethanol is corrosive to the seals and fuel systems of most of our existing engines (including boats, generators, lawn mowers, hand power tools, etc.), and can not be dispensed through existing gas station pumps. And finally, ethanol has about 30 percent less energy per gallon than gasoline. That means the fuel economy of a vehicle running on E-85 will be about 25% less than a comparable vehicle running on gasoline.
So. How much does the consumer pay for a gallon of corn ethanol? Let’s sum it up.
These numbers are estimates. We can speculate about the real cost of corn ethanol. It may cost more – or less – than $6.89 per gallon. But the real price we pay for corn ethanol is much higher than the one we see at the filling station.
So. What did we accomplish with this rush to a politically expedient pop-culture solution?
The environmental benefits of E85 are both uncertain and confusing. Test results vary depending on water contamination, engine temperature, test vehicle fuel system design, ignition system performance, and the ideological convictions of the tester. It is likely E85, when compared with standard gasoline, will reduce tailpipe emissions from oxides of nitrogen, 1,3-butadiene, and benzene. Methane and total organic gas emissions are greater. Carbon monoxide ad CO2 results vary from reasonably good to really terrible. The real eye opener is a large increase in formaldehyde (isn’t that the stuff they use to embalm dead people?), and a huge increase in acetaldehyde emissions. A suspected neurotoxin, exposure to acetaldehyde vapor will irritate the victims eyes, skin and respiratory tract. The State of California has determined that acetaldehyde is a carcinogen.And we should consider this concept. Do we release far more pollution into the environment during the production and processing of corn into corn ethanol than we save in act of consuming corn ethanol as a motor fuel? Probably. Corn is monoculture cultivation on a massive scale, requiring copious quantities of oil and natural gas for herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. These – along with tons of eroded soils – are deposited as a polluted waste in our rivers and oceans. If the agribusiness industry attempts to increase current levels of food production by deforestation and the use of marginal land, the net result is an acceleration of greenhouse gases and a decrease in biodiversity. Corn derived animal feeds are a potent source of methane, a greenhouse gas. In my trusty Honda Accord, straight gasoline gave me roughly 31 MPG. When California added a low percentage of corn ethanol to the mix, my mileage dropped to 28 MPG. I had to use 9.7% more fuel to go the same distance. I just completed a like comparison in my Honda Pilot. My mileage dropped from an average of 22.5 MPG, to 20.4 MPG, a reduction of 9.3%. If the improvement in air quality is marginal (at best!), then doesn’t the energy loss of corn ethanol actually increase the release of CO2? Perhaps it is time to challenge our obsolete assumptions. This is 2007. Does corn ethanol in the mix continue to make any sense?
That, of course, is a rhetorical question. If we evaluate corn ethanol as a fuel system, we must add the hydrocarbon and poisons produced during planting, growing, harvesting, conversion, transportation, blending, distribution, and consumption to the additional hydrocarbons released by corn ethanol waste, and the hydrocarbon penalty from energy inefficiency.More questions.
Green house gas is green house gas. Every puff adds to global warming. Our pop culture romance with corn ethanol – all carefully nurtured by agribusiness interests – obscures the realities of corn ethanol combustion. It does not force us to do the one thing we must do to protect our environment – increase the efficiency of fuel consumption.
Addressing Global Warming, Air Pollution Health Damage, and Long-Term Energy Needs Simultaneously, Mark Z. Jacobson, Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Stanford University, June 6, 2006. “Proponents of corn ethanol suggest that it is a clean and renewable fuel that will reduce air pollution and address climate change. Data, computer model results, and new emission information suggest that corn ethanol is neither clean nor has it been shown that it can slow global warming. To the contrary, its promotion will continue the public health crisis that has resulted in thousands of premature air-pollution-related deaths and millions of cases of asthma and respiratory disease each year in the U.S.” …..
So. Does adding corn ethanol to fuel mix do anything to help in our quest for cleaner air? The ecology of our planet? Global warming?
I could be wrong. You decide.
Makes Us Less dependent on Oil
More controversy. Best case, it takes almost as much energy to make corn ethanol as we get from the resulting corn ethanol fuel. Deduct waste and energy consumed in the supply chain, along with a sharp decrease in fuel efficiency, and what do you get? At best, if we reach the goals set by Congress, corn ethanol will make America less than 1 percent less dependent on oil as a fuel resource.I remain skeptical.
In any event, famines occurred throughout the 20th century: The Allied blockade of Germany from 1915 – 1918; Armenia 1915 – 1917; The Soviet Famine of 1932 – 1934; Poland 1940 – 1942; Leningrad 1941 to 1944; India 1943 – 1944; China 1928, 1942, 1958 - 1962; Biafra in the late 1960s; Cambodia in the 1970s; and more recently the famines in North Korea, Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and parts of Latin America. Pockets of starvation and malnutrition happened all over the globe. We can blame them on crop failure, drought, and pestilence. But most were either created or exacerbated by man. Hatred, war, genocide, lousy economic policy. Hunger has been politicized and globalized. Famine is invariably attended by disease, malnutrition, poverty, inflated food prices, declining education, disrupted medical systems, social disintegration, and – bloody senseless conflict. Most of the dead are little children and old people. More men than women. Millions suffer from severe malnutrition – the bride of crippling disease. And things are getting worse. We humans are destroying our arable land. The cost of the amendments and chemicals that spurred the green revolution are becoming prohibitively expensive. By the end of the 2oth century, the basic infrastructure of food production was breaking down in many parts of the world. In Brazil, for example, the replacement of small farms with vast seas of industrialized sugarcane monoculture has led to a decrease in biodiversity, the conversion of more forests to farmland, increased food prices, and rising social problems from vandalism, unemployment, political unrest and violence. Food production has declined at many subsistence farms in Africa, Asia, Mexico, and elsewhere. Although the demand for corn promises to increase the income of poor farmers in Mexico, they will have to chose between planting crops for food or crops for fuel.
A study of third world cultural economics suggests millions of Third world farmers face increased deprivation. If impoverished farmers are forced to raise fuel crops because they increase the wealth of those in power, the farmers will starve because they did not grow enough food. Sadly. The prerequisite pattern of oppression has already been established in Third World countries. Inorganic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides are already too expensive. So farmers plant the land without them until it is exhausted. Useless.
Current corn ethanol production plans will take most of America’s corn crop off the world market. Corn and grain crop prices paid by millions of people in multiple nations will go up. For some, there is not enough money to pay these inflated prices.
There Are Better Alternatives.
And on and on. There are multiple ways to reduce global warming. So. By comparison, what did this burst of enthusiasm for corn ethanol accomplish?
The Real Cost
The marginal benefits of cleaner air will be offset by increased pollution in the corn ethanol supply chain. On a net energy basis, one can make the case corn ethanol increases America’s consumption of natural gas and oil. We have been warned by academics, staff at the United Nations, and many, many of others: The specter of famine promises to accelerate exponentially in the 21st century. Every acre converted to the production of fuel is an acre that will not be used for food. And finally, there are alternative energy solutions available to us that would be far more effective if we really want to do something constructive about global warming.And despite all this – Congress wants to use crop land to grow fuel? Has motor fuel become more important than eating? Why has Congress chosen to ignore the impact their program will have on the price of food? And why corn ethanol? Is it because corn is a crop Iowa farmers know how to grow? Is campaign financing and the 2008 election cycle more important than constructive strategic planning? Was corn ethanol an overly simplistic response to our looming energy shortages? Has most of the campaign for corn ethanol been financed by agribusiness interests? Do they have a financial interest in the outcome? Has the environmentalist community been hoodwinked? Was the claim that animal feed is energy deceptive?
You decide.By all means, we should explore the development, production, and distribution of biomass fuels. Many are working diligently on the conversion of plant wastes and other organic materials into motor fuels. My son and I have talked frequently about alternative fuels. With great patience he has sketched out the chemical reactions needed to get from raw material to motor fuel. Pieces of paper scattered about the kitchen table. Each promises a potential solution. All need work. He has his own ideas about the conversion of agricultural, commercial, industrial, and municipal wastes into useful fuels. We agree on the objective (you can read about it at http://www.c8tce.blogspot.com/ ). What ever we do, let’s base our alternative fuel decisions on good science, cultural economics, and a consideration for the use of these fuels within the context of our environmental goals. Pop culture solutions forced on us by the selfish-best-interest political power of the proponents is a trap we shall regret.
That’s the way I feel. How about you?
Ronald R. Cooke
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March 1st, 2024
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