Fueling an absurdity: Federal policies defy facts about ethanol

Phyllis Hunsinger

At a time when rising food prices cause financial hardship and insecurity for many Americans, burning alcohol made from corn in gasoline engines seems absurd.

In its infinite wisdom, Congress enacted a law in 2005 requiring oil companies to blend renewable fuels produced by converting biological material into ethanol, biodiesel or other liquid fuels with gasoline. Two years later, the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) further increased the amount of biofuels required to be blended into gasoline. Known as the Renewable Fuel Standard, the legislation required annual biofuel use to increase from
9 billion gallons in 2008 to 26 billion gallons in 2022.

Agricultural interest groups promote corn ethanol as an environmentally beneficial alternative to gasoline. But does it benefit the environment?

Jason Hill refuted this view in a March 2022 story titled “The Sobering Truth About Corn Ethanol.” Hill contended corn ethanol neither reduces greenhouse gas emissions nor improves energy security.

Writing for the Center on Global Energy Policy in November, Noah Kaufman stated: “Despite these failures, major reforms due to the powerful political allies of farmers and biofuel producers who benefit from the regulation have never been made. The production of ethanol is resource intensive and uses land that could instead be used for other purposes.”

“It takes more energy to make ethanol from grain than the combustion of ethanol produces,” said David Pimentel, a professor in the college of agriculture and life sciences at Cornell. Pimentel also chaired a U.S. Department of Energy panel that investigated the energetics, economic and environmental aspects of ethanol production. Among his findings: An acre yields about 7,110 pounds of corn for processing into 328 gallons of ethanol. Planting, growing and harvesting that much corn requires about 140 gallons of fossil fuels. The energy costs of corn production and converting to ethanol requires 131,000 British thermal units to make 1 gallon of ethanol, which has an energy value of 77,000 BTUs. A gallon of ethanol from corn costs more than a gallon of gasoline. Federal subsidies for corn results in higher prices for meat, milk and eggs. Ethanol causes environmental damage.

Despite facts to the contrary, ethanol was touted as good for the environment and its use was mandated.

According to the results of a five-year study reported in January 2021 by EcoEnclose, a Colorado-based sustainable packing company, burning corn ethanol in gasoline-powered cars contributes to increased fertilizer use, water pollution, soil erosion and at least 24 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline. The production of ethanol has been proven to be resource intensive and a contributor to pollution in the environment. Yet, the mandate continues.

Despite the lack of benefits of adding ethanol to gasoline, the federal government has nurtured and sustained the ethanol industry with massive subsidies. Ethanol producers have received favorable tax treatment, production subsidies, tariff protection from foreign competition and a government mandate for its use. Economic distortions are caused by forcing payments from petroleum refiners and importers to biofuel producers and refiners. Taxpayer dollars are used to subsidize ineffective and costly programs pretending to help the environment and wean the public from fossil fuels. Saying something is good for the environment doesn’t make it so.

Why would a country choose to burn a food source to power a vehicle when fossil fuels are in abundant supply? Decisions based on ideology will never choose a path as efficient as a free market economy.