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.