Bioethanol: A shiny penny for the U.S. economy

Deep down inside, you know that using corn ethanol as fuel must be good for the environment. Picture the process by which fossil fuels are produced: the refinery fires, the black sludge, the billowing acrid smoke and intolerable heat. Now think of a field of corn, their green stalks swaying languidly under a perfect sapphire sky. It is unfathomable to me that anyone who is able to form this mental image could ever argue that producing ethanol from corn isn’t a good idea. But it seems that whenever a great advance is made, there are always going to be a handful of critics who try to ruin it for everyone.

After years of positive press for our government’s growing ethanol program, an unreasonable backlash has been growing against this renewable energy source. Critics accuse bioethanol of being a waste of resources; The Economist reports that filling an SUV tank with ethanol requires enough corn to feed one person for a year.

However, this so-called “wastefulness” is really just another way in which bioethanol reduces harmful carbon emissions. As we convert more of the world’s food stockpile into fuel, people in impoverished countries will surely begin to die from starvation. I’m no environmental engineer, but I do know that fewer people means a smaller “carbon footprint.”

Even though a very small percentage of our total energy need is currently provided by biofuel, this projected environmental benefit is already beginning to come to fruition. According to the Washington Post, the rise in corn ethanol consumption caused the price of a tortilla in Mexico to double in the space of a few months, leading to widespread protests. We can only hope that the trend will continue.

This population reduction, however, is far from the main reason why ethanol is environmentally friendly. As corn plants grow, they take carbon out of the atmosphere and store it as sugar and other compounds. When the corn is burned, it returns that carbon to the atmosphere, so it doesn’t produce any new emissions.

Despite this scientific fact, one friend of mine — whose name I will withhold to spare him the embarrassment of his boorish opinions — tried to convince me that bioethanol programs were bad for the environment.

“Do you realize,” he said to me, “that the British government calculated that corn ethanol causes more carbon dioxide emissions per unit energy than gasoline does?”

“But that’s not possible,” I pointed out, “biofuel doesn’t cause any emissions.”

“It wouldn’t, if we weren’t burning fossil fuels to produce it. Ethanol is so expensive that, even with a heavy subsidy, its own manufacturers can’t afford to buy it. They have to burn coal to refine and transport ethanol. How is this going to reduce our carbon footprint?”

“Well, if there’s more demand for biofuels, then that means that farmers are going to grow more plants,” I said. “And plants will store more carbon.”

“Yes, we will probably have to clear more farmland,” he replied, “but that makes global warming even worse. You release a lot of carbon dioxide when you clear land for crops, and even grassland stores carbon better than cropland does. Also, corn has a terrible fuel yield per acre. We only use it because politicians want to pick up votes in corn-growing states.”

He went on to tell me that even more efficient “second generation” fuels like sugar beets and sugar cane are driving massive deforestation in the tropical rainforests due to the rising demand for food. His face reddened and he began shouting about how “algae bioreactors” and “switchgrass crops in marginal lands” were the only solution. By then, I had long since stopped listening.

People like my friend, people who think that they are very bright, love to call our most forward-thinking solutions to modern problems “hasty” and “ill-conceived.” But the people who actually wield political power in this country clearly know something that these biofuel skeptics don’t.

Every year, our government spends billions of dollars on corn ethanol subsidies, giving manufacturers 52 cents for every gallon that they produce. And it looks like these subsidies are here to stay; before the Iowa primaries, Sens. Clinton, Obama and McCain all came out in favor of corn bioethanol programs, with McCain in particular reversing his position from “Ethanol is not worth it,” to “I support ethanol and I think it is a vital, a vital alternative energy source.” In addition, the US legislature has passed a series of bills requiring a massive increase in our domestic production of biofuels in the coming decade.

All of this begs the question: If corn bioethanol is really as bad for the economy and the environment as the skeptics say, why would our government be spending so much money and resources to support it? After all, the United States government is seldom wrong about science.

Michael Zink is a junior in Saybrook College. His column usually runs on alternate Fridays.

Comments

  • Anonymous

    Algae! Switchgrass! Cellulosic ethanol! BASLJGFANadGMADMG COME ON!

    Just fix the Farm Bill and corn won't be such an attractive source for ethanol fuel anyway. Somebody? Anybody?

  • huh?

    This uninformed, opinionated friend of yours clearly spent more time researching the topic than you have. Corn is definitely prettier than an oilrig though, so I believe you.

  • Amused

    Hehe, Drew missed the point. I love people who can't see anything that's not put right in front of them. Read the article again Drew - did you get it this time?

  • a few thoughts

    #1:

    i understand, and sympathize with, the angle from which the majority of your points were made. for example, i agree with you that the news' sensationalizing of, among others, ned fulmer's article, david light's enthusiasm for firearms, and the aliza shwartz situation was indeed excessive and self-promotional. furthermore, i also can see where your argument for a unified campus stems from - in particular, looking at the class of 2011 (which was introduced to this campus with a discussion on multiculturalism and diversity), there are certainly signs of solidarity on old campus that do not display the symptoms of being "fractured".

    yet, at the same time, i can't help but also agree with the underlying theme of the editorial piece, which errs on the side of being implicitly self-critical of the news' own reporting while simultaneously placing a much-needed emphasis on topics of conversation that unquestionably deserve some serious attention in the fall and beyond. frankly, it's hard for me to turn a blind eye to the gravity surrounding the coming academic year. while, superficially, it may be difficult to observe signs of division and fracturing on a day-to-day basis, there are undoubtedly shortcomings and challenges – ranging from the lack of explicitly defined grievance procedures and support resources for victims of hate crimes and harassment to the disenfranchisement of student opinion in the residential college decision-making process to the university’s thus-far awkwardly unclear stance on the woodward report to the obvious challenges associated with an increasingly international and globalized yale (and world) – that present us (the students) with the rare opportunity to make a substantive and lasting impact on the university not only for ourselves and our generation, but for many, many future generations to come. the news deserves some credit for bringing to the forefront some of the more important issues facing us next year, and for encouraging students to shake off the shackles of complacency and inaction.

    with that said, while i admittedly haven't always been the biggest fan of the news' articles and editorial pieces, hats off to them, in their final editorial of the year, for moving beyond a newspaper of sensationalized record-keeping, and for stepping into the realm of more analytical, thought-out, and opinionated journalism.

    looking forward to '08–'09,
    rich t (sm '10)

  • Anonymous

    Doh !

  • Anonymous

    Great article!

  • Anonymous

    It's partly responsible for the rise in food prices.

  • Alumnus

    You put so much faith in our government and elected officials with your closing words, "Why would our government be spending so much money and resources [on corn based fuel and bioehtanol sudsidies] to support it??" I can only hope that your naivite will diminish with wisdom that comes with age and your will one day open your eyes and realize the bottom line: choices like these get votes in middle american states in an election year.

  • Well put #7

    "Sens. Clinton, Obama and McCain all came out in favor of corn bioethanol programs, with McCain in particular reversing his position from “Ethanol is not worth it,” to “I support ethanol and I think it is a vital, a vital alternative energy source.”

    Gee whiz paw! if Clinton, Obama AND McCain said its good for us it HAS TO BE! They couldent possibly be influeced by big agriculture and their $$ lobby.

    #7 hits the nail on the head. I suppose the author thinks that Hybrids save energy too? Do your research on BOTH sides of the argument before you take such a one-sided stand. In fact, by the time that the batteries are manufactured, used and disposed of in a hybrid vehicle the energy consumed makes a regular gas burning conventional auto looks like a Mini-Cooper plastered with "Think Globally, Act locally" and "Darwin Fish" bumper snickers…Its like on "Trading Spaces" when the host says, "Open your eyes!".

  • Embarassed

    Wow, I'm so ashamed to be a fellow Yalie today. Unless I missed some very poorly-writted satire, you seem to think starving the world's poor to death by using corn-based ethanol (which really does emit more carbon than regular old oil) is a good thing. I suppose you think we could burn their clothes and blankets in our SUVs too, then they would starve faster. What a day column - apparently Yale needs to institute a freshman ethics class so our out-of-touch, sheltered, fascist underclassmen can find out about human rights, not to mention using actual facts as the basis for their opinions.