A quiet invasion is under way near my home in Colorado. Inconspicuous black stickers are appearing on gas pumps announcing the arrival of a new molecule looking to occupy gas tanks. It goes by the name of C2H5OH -- ethanol.
Typically, my consumption of ethanol is strictly oral, in the form of alcoholic beverages. But I was forced recently to consume ethanol through an avenue much less entertaining or appetizing -- my gas tank.
It was a crisp Saturday morning, and I was driving with a friend to a workshop in Boulder. All was going well until suddenly my Prius notified me that it was getting ready to run out of gas. If you own a ecologically fashionable Prius, you know that in this vehicle, the illumination of the gas light amounts not so much as a warning as the start of an emergency that might well end in a trip to the Toyota dealer.
But when the dread light came on, I was five miles from the nearest gas station. I started coasting down hills and taking corners like my brakes were out, well aware that my weekend would be blown if I sucked the tank dry. At last, the Prius and I made it to the tiny town of Nederland and what appeared to be the only gas station around. That’s when I saw a little black sticker informing me that the gasoline from this pump was supplemented with ethanol. For many reasons, being forced to gas up with ethanol was not as happy an occasion as cracking a Colorado microbrew.
Economic and environmental studies consistently criticize corn-based ethanol because increased demand for the fuel can push up prices for food with corn ingredients and because its production is so energy-intensive. According to Scientific American, the energy balance for corn ethanol is at most 1.3-to-1, meaning that its output of energy is only 30 percent greater than the energy it took to produce and ship it. Since ethanol can bond with condensed water in pipelines, it must be shipped by diesel trucks or trains. Meanwhile, gasoline’s energy balance is 5-to-1.
Ethanol production is so energy-intensive that the United States would have to increase its imports of natural gas to meet mandates for this "domestic" fuel. What’s more, thanks to ethanol's lower energy density, your vehicle is 33 percent less efficient when it burns ethanol, so you'll be paying more to fill up more often. Energy experts such as Jan Krieder of the University of Colorado find that burning ethanol produces more carbon dioxide, a major component of global warming, than just burning gasoline.
It appears that politics drives the production of the new fuel more than any benefits to the environment. Agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland, one of the world's largest corn processing firms and the country's leading ethanol producer, has contributed $3.7 million to elected officials since 2000. Those politicians, in turn, handed out corn subsidies totaling $51 billion between 1995 and 2005. Congress has also subsidized ethanol itself at $1.38 per gallon, and mandated huge increases in ethanol production. All told, the ethanol hoopla seems more like a cynical and misleading marketing campaign than an ecological fix to what’s ailing our atmosphere.
And that is why I bought only $10 of ethanol-supplemented gasoline at that pump in Nederland. At a time when it is crucial that we do everything in our power to curb global warming, the ethanol boom seems a distracting waste of precious time and tax dollars.
Ever since then, in my own small way, I have been fighting the invasion of the black stickers. I gas up only where they are not. But most people probably don't even notice them. They don't care that there's booze in their fuel, or worst of all, they think they're doing their part to fight global warming by buying ethanol-supplemented gasoline.
I invite you to join my boycott of the black stickers. Spread the word and help prevent the hijacking of the environmental movement by fat cats who could care less about saving the planet so long as they get paid.
Dustin Heron Urban is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). A recent college graduate, he lives and writes in Buena Vista, Colorado.