Corn ethanol isn't all it's cracked up to be


This was supposed to be a cakewalk, a no-brainer, a slam-dunk.

Ethanol from corn lessened our dependence on foreign oil, they told us. It helped our struggling Midwestern farmers. It was much better for the environment. Who could not support this?

As it turns out, quite a few of us. Ethanol plants are sprouting like weeds in mid-America, but more and more question marks are emerging along this corn-paved road to energy independence. Ethanol, as it is made from corn, isn't nearly the renewable fuel it's cracked up to be.

Here's the simple but telling equation: Our federal farm bill subsidizes the growing of corn — about $10 billion this past year, according to the Environmental Working Group. That policy leads to overproduction of this thirsty crop, which drains the Great Plains' precious Ogallala Aquifer and requires massive amounts of nitrate fertilizer that, inevitably, seep into that same groundwater.

Our federal, state and local governments also subsidize the building and operation of ethanol plants, usually with incentives and property tax breaks. Many of these plants have been cited for water and air pollution violations.

Yet another subsidy, more than 50 cents a gallon, occurs at the pump. The fuel desperately needs it because, depending on the ethanol content and the vehicle, it gets anywhere from 5 percent to 30 percent worse mileage efficiency than regular unleaded.

After all this, how can we view the corn ethanol apparatus any other way than the obvious? It is little more than political gift to the corn and ethanol lobbies.

When you scratch beyond those lobbies' slogans and sound bites, the realities emerge.The latest: Some, perhaps a majority, of our newest ethanol plants are making the switch from natural gas to coal to make the fuel. Because coal is cheaper, a new Iowa ethanol plant has chosen that route. Similar plants are planned for North Dakota, Montana, Minnesota and perhaps Kansas.

The problem, says the Natural Resources Defense Council, is that the carbon emissions alone from the coal plants will far outweigh any possible gains in using ethanol in our tanks.

Other corn ethanol realities:

  • Producing one gallon of corn ethanol needs 1,700 gallons of water to irrigate the corn and process the fuel, according to Cornell researcher David Pimentel, who's been lambasted by ethanol proponents because he says what they don't like to hear. Because of that depletion, the Ogallala Aquifer in the Plains is under considerable stress. Crop irrigation has already effectively dried up most of the aquifer in the Texas Panhandle, western Kansas and eastern Colorado.

  • Growing corn for ethanol increases soil erosion and reduces biodiversity, according to Washington State University researchers.

  • The Des Moines Register, in an enterprise story last fall, found that Iowa's ethanol plants have contaminated the state's air and water. A corn ethanol plant in Hastings, Neb., was cited for clean-air violations every year from 1995 to 2004. And some studies performed in California, where ethanol blends are required in the Sacramento and Los Angeles areas, show that the fuel increases harmful emissions.

  • The rich get richer: Nearly half of all ethanol plants are owned by Cargill and ADM, and that percentage is likely to increase, according to the Renewable Fuels Association.

  • In parts of the Midwest this spring, the price of Ethanol-10 was higher than regular unleaded. Since a gallon of E-10 lacks the energy content of a gallon of regular, the price of the former must be 15 to 75 cents cheaper to offer any real savings for consumers. (Check out

So does all this mean we should forget ethanol entirely as a player in our energy future? Well, no.

Ethanol will become a more attractive alternative when we kick our corn addiction and get serious about more efficient alternatives. It can be made from numerous materials — landfill waste, livestock manure, even beer waste, as Coors is demonstrating.

But what really has scientists and researchers excited is cellulose.These materials include wheat straw, hemp, miscanthus and switchgrass. The latter promises the greatest rewards.The technology is developing quickly. The huge advantages of cellulosic ethanol are threefold — it's much easier on our natural resources than corn, it yields much more energy per acre(and it's a perennial), and it emits two-thirds less greenhouse gases.

America's first commercial cellulosic ethanol plant may break ground next year in Idaho. It will use wheat straw and barley to make its ethanol. That's a good first step. From there, we can pursue truly environmentally friendly fuels and put this culture of corn ethanol to bed.

Pete Letheby is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He is a writer and reporter in Grand Island, Nebraska.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

May 16, 2006 01:23 PM

Pete Letheby's editorial about corn-based ethanol is important. It is an excellent summation of this classic case of "boosterism". I live in the middle of a countryside swept up in ethanol fever. Plants are springing up everywhere. I would like to know more about corn growing's impact to top soil, particularly soil fertility. Corn, as we know, is HARD, on soil. That seems to be a forgotten aspect in discussions about corn-based ethanol. It is called a renewable source of energy, but topsoil is not really renewable, unless you view the 250 to 1000 years it takes to create an inch of topsoil as "renewable". Keep up the grand work. Peter Carrels Aberdeen, SD

May 22, 2006 01:11 PM

Letheby is a good writer and, as a Nebraskan, I am familiar with his writings in the local paper. Unfortunately he's very selective on his sources and facts (as is Peter Carrols in his comment). 1) Letheby cites work of Cornell Professor Pimmental. However, those familiar with the industry know that Pimmental is virtualy a lone voice and that his work has been widely discredited. Pimmental's studies were distorted by combining old data and faulty assumptions. 2) The Ogallala Aquifer was drying up long before ethanol become popular. Moreover, as Letheby knows, the water problems in NE and KS have largely been on surface water (i.e. rivers). Today, farmers use more efficient irrigation systems that produce more corn with less water than ever before. In fact, in many (admittedly not all) areas, the water tables and recharge levels have actually increased. 3) Peter Carrels also comments without knowing the facts. The reality is that use of conservation practices in corn production have increased organic matter and reduced nitrogen run-off and leaching. The fact is corn producers have significantly increased average yields not by abusing the soil but by improving it.