The Corn Ethanol Boondoggle

December 1, 2008
By
The fact that the United States government wastes billions of our tax dollars is no secret but many times people do not know exactly where the money goes. In 1973 President Nixon started a major initiative to wean our country off of foreign imported crude oil but this movement still remains unsolved today (Bryce). After spending many years and billions of dollars on this issue, the government thinks that they found the answer, ethanol. To many people ethanol seems like a good choice because of its availability and affordable price at the pump. The government, however, plays a major part in price and production control of ethanol due to subsidies and mandates that require ethanol production. Despite our major need for an alternative fuel source, ethanol fails to meet the standard of fuel that our country needs in many ways.

The argument against ethanol starts with the fact that the fuel is not efficient enough to even make it worth while. Some people say that ethanol will replace gasoline and end our countries dependence on foreign oil, but they do not know the facts and statistics that clearly show the problem with ethanol. Professor David Pimental, an agricultural scientist, did research to find the actual energy output of ethanol, and became shocked with what he found. He found that 131,000 BTU’s are needed to produce one gallon of ethanol, and that one gallon of ethanol contains 77,000 BTU’s of energy. The numbers from this experiment show a net energy loss of 54,000 BTU’s in every gallon of ethanol produced. This study shows it takes close to seventy percent more energy to produce ethanol than the energy that ethanol actually delivers (Thornton). These facts alone should show enough evidence against ethanol from corn to stop production and for scientist to find a better source for alternative fuel, but the facts do not stop our politicians. In the terms of money, Pimental found that ethanol cost around $1.74 per gallon to produce versus 95 cents to produce a gallon of gasoline (Thornton). With our country’s economy in its current state, can the United States afford to promote an inefficient fuel such as ethanol? No! We must find better ways to spend our nation’s money than investing billions of dollars in an inefficient fuel. People continue to push for the production of ethanol, but they do not understand what holds production back. The lack of need and profit hold ethanol production back. The government tries to help the market for ethanol as much as they can, but the government can only do so much. The consumers will ultimately decide the fate of the fuel, and why choose a less efficient fuel. Yes ethanol appears cheaper than gasoline when you buy it at the station, but most people do not know that when a driver switches from gasoline to ethanol their vehicles mile per gallon efficiency rate drops by an average of almost thirty percent (Maag).

The next major argument against ethanol deals with ethanol and its environmental effects. With little or no knowledge of ethanol, one might think that since they bought a fuel produced from corn that they are helping the environment. That idea does sound good, but there are a lot of drawbacks to corn based ethanol that most people do not think of when buying fuel. For mass production of ethanol, there must be an abundant supply of corn. The current corn crop fulfills many roles; the two major roles involve providing food for humans and food for animals. Ethanol production also makes the list of things that corn creates, but ethanol takes a backseat to necessities such as food. If ethanol production continues the way that the government wants it to, then we will not only see a rise in food prices but also a shortage of corn. “A former member of the United Nations Special Rapportuer on the Right to Food called ethanol and other biofuels a crime against humanity” (An Earful on Ethanol: Rising Food Prices, Inefficient Production and Other Problems). The preceding statement is very true and powerful. If we use the majority of our corn crop for fuel, then other countries that rely on our surplus corn for food and animal feed will then lack the necessities that they need to lead their normal lives. Also if the U.S. develops ethanol as a major fuel source, then we will need every ounce of corn we can get. This means that we will stop all corn exportation and that some of our corn set aside for food will probably get used up in the fuel production process. With the growing demand for corn, the nation will see a dramatic rise in the price of foods because of the simple law of supply and demand. “By most estimates, our country can produce about 15 billion gallons of ethanol from corn without severe disruption of the food production system. That much ethanol would displace less than seven percent of the nation’s gasoline” (Maag C.1). So why does our country try so hard to develop a fuel where at its maximum production quantity does not even substitute seven percent of our nation’s gasoline?

Another major environmental issue for ethanol from corn deals with the topic of harmful gasses emitted from the fuel. At first, environmentalists found that ethanol emits few negative green house gasses when burned, but now the rising demand for corn causes farmers to clear previously untouched land, which means more carbon molecules get released into the atmosphere (Rethinking Ethanol WK. 11). With the farmers clearing more trees for areas to plant corn, there are fewer trees to turn carbon monoxide into oxygen. If our nation lets this happen then we will only accelerate the process of global warming and we all know that Americans do not want that to happen. The final major environmental drawback to ethanol from corn involves water. Significant amounts of water are needed in the ethanol process; it takes a little over sixteen gallons of water to produce one gallon of ethanol. This statistic does not include additional irrigation of the corn, if needed (Solar Energy Research Institute 11). Not only does corn rob water from the earth, but it also erodes the soil twelve times faster than the soil can be reformed (Thornton). These facts show more proof on why ethanol production is bad for our environment and our country. If we start to produce more ethanol, then corn will need to be planted everywhere that it can grow. If the farmers keep planting corn and not planting a crop that helps restore nutrients into the soil by rotating crops, then the grounds they plant on will lose all of their nutrients and this will make it harder to support a crop. If this happened then our country might see its first ever modern food epidemic along with skyrocketing food prices.

Most tax payers know that the government wastes billions of dollars annually on pointless projects and by funding obscure programs. We cannot control what the government spends the money on, but we do withhold the power to speak out about what they do. Ethanol found its way up the ladder of government funding and became a major issue. The U.S. government supports the production of ethanol and waste millions of our nation’s tax dollars on the inefficient fuel by subsidizing ethanol production. Without the government mandates and subsidies, the push for the production of ethanol might not exist with such strength. The government instituted a mandate that required production of ethanol so that in the year 2022, fifteen billion gallons of ethanol be made annually. This mandate came with a fifty-one cent tax credit on every gallon that ethanol manufactures make (An Earful on Ethanol: Rising Food Prices, Inefficient Production and Other Problems). If a product seems like a good idea and financially makes sense, then the government should not need to make major mandates and give abundant subsidies to help the product along. The government gives ethanol producers a fifty-one cent tax credit on every gallon that they produce and yet it still cost more to produce the fuel than gasoline. Imagine ethanol without the tax credits. The cost at the pump, the only area where ethanol remains better than gasoline, would rise dramatically. If the price of ethanol rose, or if gasoline prices dropped then the product might lose its curb appeal.

That very situation described above where gas prices lower and ethanol no longer remains the cheaper fuel is occurring right now. Recently gas has fallen to the lowest prices in two years, and ethanol companies now feel the pain of this price drop. Over the last couple of years, ethanol companies and wealthy investors only thought of expansion and growing their businesses to maximize profit, but now all that these people can think of involves keeping their businesses from going under. One of the nations leading ethanol production companies, VeraSun, announced its declaration for bankruptcy a few weeks ago, and many other smaller ethanol companies have done the same or postponed construction and expansion plans for new Midwestern ethanol plants (Galbraith). A situation like this happened a week ago in Mount Vernon, IN, a major ethanol plant under construction came to an abrupt stop after the corporate management decided that the company was not in the financial state to finish the project. Unfortunately, situations like this one happen often. If these businesses suffer because their product is inefficient and will not sell, then the government needs to recognize that corn based ethanol cannot solve our fuel problems. Without mandates and subsidies, it is doubtful that a viable business case can come from ethanol production. To form a successful business, one needs demand for the product by the consumers, not by the government. Right now the only demands for the production of ethanol belong to members of the U.S government. Sooner or later the government must rethink these mandates requiring ethanol production or else our nation will suffer from their bad judgment.

Information gathered from many different sources show the inefficiency of ethanol fuel produced from corn. People must realize that the push to make ethanol our country’s major fuel source needs to be stopped. If our nation continues on with this course of action, not only will the fuel soon fail to meet the needs of the consumers, but also the fuel will cause many other problems including environmental damages, food shortages and billions of dollars wasted. These facts show that the market for corn based ethanol has a very dark future and that even with extreme help from the government the product will not succeed. The government and the rest of our nation needs to learn from this that producing ethanol from corn is not the right answer.





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