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

by Pete Letheby

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:

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.

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