Growing corn in America’s heartland, distilling it into alcohol and mixing it with gasoline to power vehicles may sound like an ingenious way to be freed from dependency on foreign oil, cut down on air pollution and begin the transition to a renewable energy source.
But depending on where you stand, ethanol, a grain alcohol usually made from corn, is either the answer to the United State’s energy concerns or a too-good-to-be-true boondoggle that serves only to pad the pockets of those who manufacture it.
Regardless of who’s right, production and consumption of ethanol is on the rise, doubling since 2001. Eighty-one plants in 20 states are expected to produce more than 3.3 billion gallons of ethanol by the end of 2004, according to the Renewable Fuels Association, the national trade group for ethanol.
The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is now running about one-fifth of its vehicle fleet on E-85, a gasohol blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. The lab made the switch in July with an $83,000 Department of Energy grant, building Northern California’s first ethanol fueling station.
Nearly every gas tank in California has some ethanol in it. Since the state banned MTBE, California refiners have been using ethanol to meet a federal oxygenate requirement.
Although it’s supposed to help reduce emissions, California officials believe gasoline would actually burn cleaner without the two percent mandate and have requested a waiver.
While touted as a renewable, cleaner burning fuel, critics call ethanol fundamentally unsustainable and argue its production is fouling the water and polluting the air. What’s worse, they say, it’s propped up by billions of dollars in subsidies.
“It’s a real boondoggle, no question about it,” said David Pimentel, a professor of agricultural sciences at Cornell University, who has chaired two Department of Energy studies on ethanol. “It’s going to take a good deal of fossil energy (to make it) and we’re going to import energy from the Saudis to do it.”
Most ethanol in the U.S. comes from corn, the nation’s biggest crop. The plant and how it is grown are key elements in the debate over the subject, which ranges from the meaning of sustainability to how best to tackle the country’s energy needs as cheap oil supplies dwindle.
Pimentel and UC Berkeley engineering professor Tad Patzek argue in separate studies that the production of corn ethanol actually consumes more fossil fuel energy than the product can provide, in addition to destroying the environment.
“The most important part of the story is that while we are producing ethanol we are using up resources,” Patzek said. “Don’t think for a second you are getting a free ride.”
In his paper “Thermodynamics of the Corn-Ethanol Biofuel Cycle,” which is to be published in the journal Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences in December, Patzek argues that energy from corn ethanol is fundamentally unsustainable.
With the corn crop’s heavy need for insecticides, herbicides and fertilizers, the production depletes the soil and pollutes the air and water, also contributing to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, he said.
“The worst thing is, we are doing it for no good reason. It’s of no benefit to anyone in this country,” Patzek said. “Nobody gains, nobody.”
This is a point vehemently denied by the ethanol industry, which says the product reduces smog-forming pollution, displaces imported fossil fuels and lowers prices for consumers.
Numerous studies, including one by the USDA, have shown that ethanol has a “large and growing positive energy balance,” said Monte Shaw of the Renewable Fuels Association.
“Is ethanol a perfect product? I guess you could argue no, because you use fossil fuels to create it,” Shaw said. “But if you want to criticize ethanol, it’s fair to say, What’s the cost of continued reliance on fossil fuels? We’re going to put something in the tanks today. I think which is more environmentally friendly is obvious.”
Roland Hwang, vehicles policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco, said the organization doesn’t support ethanol from corn because of the environmental effects of production.
“We’re supportive of a long-term biofuel future, but not from corn,” Hwang said, noting that more sustainable crops like poplar trees can be made into ethanol. “Our primary concern is the fact that the way ethanol is being used right now is making the air dirtier.”
That’s California’s concern, too.
Since former Gov. Gray Davis banned use of the oxygenate MTBE by 2003, California’s had to rely on ethanol to comply with the federal requirement for two percent oxygenate in the state’s smoggiest areas. Oxygenates are supposed to make gas burn cleaner, but the state has argued California would be better off without them.
New York and Connecticut have also switched to ethanol after banning MTBE, along with California, accounting for the dramatic increase in its use, Shaw said.
California first requested a waiver from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1999. The waiver was denied, and a second request is pending, said Gennet Paauwe of the California Air Resources Board.
“The California Air Resources Board has demonstrated that the oxygenate requirement is detrimental to our efforts to achieve healthy air quality,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wrote in a Jan. 28 letter to the EPA. The oxygenate “greatly increase the costs born by California motorists,” Schwarzenegger wrote.
The Renewable Fuels Association opposes the waiver and has submitted arguments to the EPA urging the denial of California’s request.
California’s gasoline vendors are important customers to ethanol giants like Decatur, Ill.-based Archer Daniels Midland Co. (more commonly known as ADM), which Shaw estimates controls about 30 percent of the market.
California produces only 10 million gallons of ethanol per year, so it must buy the other 890 million gallons it needs from Corn Belt states like Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. That’s a pretty big chunk of the 3.3 billion gallons Shaw expects will be produced nation-wide by the end of the year.
Technicians, and not politicians, should determine what is the appropriate formulation of fuel, says Leon G. Billings, president of the Clean Air Trust, a Washington DC group dedicated to protecting the provisions of the Clean Air Act.
Ethanol may be entirely appropriate for use with gasoline, but that shouldn’t be decided by statute, he said. But because of the sway ethanol makers have in Washington and among Corn Belt state politicians, it is, said Billings.
“ADM has an enormous stake in the production of ethanol, and they are a very high powered lobby,” said Billings. “If you look at the U.S. Congress you see the fine handiwork of ADM on the ethanol mandate.”
Perhaps as important is the grain state electorate—corn growers who see ethanol as a secure market for their product.
“Any politician who doesn’t support ethanol would be a recovering politician,” Billings said.
Back at the in Berkeley lab, fleet manager Don Prestella said ethanol wasn’t his first choice to comply with a 1999 presidential order to reduce fossil fuel consumption at federal facilities.
He’d have preferred electric or hybrid vehicles, but E-85 was his only realistic option.
“When you’re up against the bureaucracy, when you have to go up against an executive order from the president, you have to go with what you got,” Prestella said. “Ethanol was our best strategy at the time.”