A bad idea hits the gas pumps


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.

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 betsym@hcn.org.

Jan 23, 2008 07:07 PM



Great article! I would add that the at least one option to corn is switchgrass. The impact of increased corn production for ethanol not only drives up prices of corn and beef, it has driven hops production down, resulting in higher prices for quality microbrews. If we can steer farmers into producing switchgrass for ethanol, and corn for consumption, maybe they can return some acreage to hops production. Just think about it...lower food prices, lower beer prices, and more efficient gasoline..life would be good. I appreciate your pointing out it makes little sense to continue the use of corn for ethanol when there are more efficient options. I'll do my best to avoid the black stickers.




Jan 24, 2008 04:44 PM

A note: I'm pretty sure all gasoline is supplemented with ethanol, to the tune of 10-15 percent. The new stuff hitting the pumps is E85--which is, as you might guess, around 85 percent alcohol. . .

Jan 26, 2008 02:46 PM

Ethanol or any biofuel is a terrible waste of our landscape and money. Planting enough Switchgrass to pretend to make an appreciable difference would use up all of the arable and Conservation Reserve Land in our country and make not a dent in our addiction to foreign and domestic fossil fuels.  It's all a BIG SUBSIDY scam!   And E85 is 15 % ethanol.

Jan 26, 2008 02:47 PM

Ethanol or any biofuel is a terrible waste of our landscape and money. Planting enough Switchgrass to pretend to make an appreciable difference would use up all of the arable and Conservation Reserve Land in our country and make not a dent in our addiction to foreign and domestic fossil fuels.  It's all a BIG SUBSIDY scam!   And E85 is 15 % ethanol.

Jan 26, 2008 02:53 PM

Hi Dustin

while I agree with your sentiments about the recent rush towards biofuels, Boulder County's ethanol mandate long predates the recent phenomenon of which you speak.  I believe it's a winter-only program intended to relieve local air quality problems that caused Front Range cities to violate certain EPA rules in the colder months of the year.  So, while you're correct that efforts to make corn-based biofuels a larger part of our energy mix are essentially without merit, the event which triggered your written response isn't really part of the same economic dynamic.


Ben Perry

Ward, CO 

Jan 28, 2008 11:01 AM

"I would add that the at least one option to corn is switchgrass."

Switchgrass is in no way an option.  Why?  Energy. There just isn't enough energy in switchgrass' biomass to convert it into useful amounts of fuel.  If energy independence is a priority, synthesizing fuel from natural gas or syngas from gasified waste would be far more meaningful.  If reducing greenhouse gas emission is a priority, localizing production and reducing energy demand is far more meaningful.  When it comes right down to it, personal fuel consumption in private automobiles just isn't a worthwhile slice of the pie to try and eat first.  There are a number of simple changes at the national policy level that would result in more meaningful short-term gains. 

Jan 28, 2008 11:02 AM

I have been told that ethanol mixtures also lower the vehicle's gas mileage.  I wonder if this was taken into consideration when Boulder County (the county I grew up in) made their decisions.  If mpg goes down, then you're not really taking care of the air quality problem because more gasoline is still getting burned, and then add the environmental/mega-corporate agricultural damages.   


Once again, humans are only looking at the micro costs rather than the whole picture where environmental costs far outweigh the profits for a greedy company.  I'm not interested it paying the price to these mega-corporations.  


I've been very interested in the algae production of biodiesel.  So far it looks like it might be a viable option, but as with everything else, some unknown factor could rear it's ugly head.  Let's keep trying, and we'll figure it out.


Beth Q

Hotchkiss, CO


Jan 28, 2008 11:06 AM

This is has not begun to play out. I sent this http://oakcreekforum.blogspot.com/search?updated-min=2006-01-01T00%3A00%3A00-07%3A00&updated-max=2007-01-01T00%3A00%3A00-07%3A00&max-results=1 to friends just to inform them about these major changes that happened so quickly meaning land and grain prices in Iowa. Copied and pasted that into a post just to inform a bit here. Figures are accurate but have all risen. Include another link http://oakcreekforum.blogspot.com/2008/01/global-oil-quandary.html that is about cooking oils of which soy is included. Last Friday soy beans were $11.42 a bushel. Two years ago that figure was around $6.

Good article Dustin. In my opinion the midwest is changing dramatically because of this and right now it seems it will not be for the best. Do not feel comfortable with this at all.


Jan 29, 2008 11:07 AM

The fructifying earth should not be used to fuel our automobiles.  It's indecent as well as inefficient - just another opportunity for the petrochemical industry to build new markets.  Unfortunately, it has advocacy because, as pointed out by Ben Perry, ethanol is a fuel additive that is considered to reduce auto pollutant emissions that can help urban areas to comply with federal air quality standards.  But there may be a bright spot to devoting food-producing land to fuel production - a reduction in the US subsidized grain exports may allow some developing countries to compete in the agricultural marketplace.  While this would be a good thing, wouldn't it make more sense to achieve it by simply stopping the ag subsidies?  There must be a better alternative energy source that corn or switchgrass!    


Jan 29, 2008 06:36 PM

Some clarifications.

E85 is 85% ethanol, and does not specify the source

 Less MPG on ethanol is not a measure of efficiency Miles per BTU are.

Small amounts of ethanol helps all gas motors burn cleaner, which is better for all of our lungs.

The real issue in the wide open west is people driving to much.

Personal automobile use is VERY MUCH a important target for reducing energy consumption.

What is more important? Having the cheapest food and fuel in the world? or Not being the country that kills other people and invade their countries to allow us to drive everywhere we want.

Lastly, Did you do any research as to what the regulations are regarding ethanol admixtures in CO? does all the fuel come from the same refinery anyway? Are you just boycotting the stations that have complied with the law to place the stickers on pumps?

You are correct in that when you go to the pump you are buying energy and buying it by the Gallon, so when you buy fuel in CA, or at one of those Black sticker ed pumps you are buying less energy for the same amount of money. This also goes toward the argument that diesel, even if more $ per gallon, is Less $ per BTU.

What I would wish for is a goverment that we all trust so that these sort of decitions are not so individua, we should not have to think about the far reaching impact of the things we consume, and have to compete with others in the economy who have less awareness of the impacts, and thus these impacts are externalized. 

Thank you for opening this dialog 

Jan 30, 2008 10:53 AM

Sugar cane's efficiency in producing ethanol is 800% compared with 130% for corn, as others have mentioned. Currently our sugar cane lands in Hawaii are fallow or growing eucalyptus trees.  But even if we replanted cane to all these lands, and also to suitable lands in our sunny southern states (now growing soy beans, some of which crop is used to make biodiesel), we wouldn't make much of a dent in our fuel needs.  Switchgrasss efficiency ranges from about 200% to 1000% depending on the process.  Switchgrass outshines most other sources for being environmentally friendly (good for wildlife, very little erosion and stream sedimentation---unlike corn---requires no fertilization, and produces less greenhouse gas).  But, as also mentioned, there is the problem of land availability.  Richard Conniff, writing for Smithsonian, estimates that to produce biofuels from agricultural crops, whatever they are---it would take more than two times the total area of arable land currently in existence, and with global warming, the area of arable land is decreasing.  Ethanol is also being made from food-processing waste, algae, wood debris, and other forms of biomass, which may be a good thing in terms of waste management, and might reduce our total fuels needs by a percent or two, but the ultimate solution has to be a combination of various fuel-manufacturing processes, various energy-capturing sources (wind, water, solar, gravity? heat exchange, chemical reaction, ???) improved combustion and energy-utilization efficiency, and,  dare I say it, reduced consumption. Reduced fuel consumption could and maybe should be a major consideration in city and community planning, but I know of no cases where this is happening.  If anyone does, I'd be interested in learning about it

Chuck Bolsinger, Boring, OR


Jan 30, 2008 05:15 PM

What we hope for is a commodity that will replace corn, like sugar that has an energy output 8 times that of corn,  then the ethanol infrastructure will pay off.  Happy trails  Tom

Jan 30, 2008 06:02 PM

In Missoula, MT, the push to use ethanol is driven by our common temperature/pollution "inversions" during the winter months. This has meant mandated ethanol fuel at every pump here - leaving us zero choice from November thru February. Has the switched help curb our valley smog? That I am unsure of, as I have not seen the current stats on that. However, our tanks certainly suck through the gallons of the stuff...


Feb 04, 2008 11:22 AM

There are many unfortunate claims about ethanol in gasoline in this article. The first is that ethanol is just now finding its way into gas at the pump. This is absurd, since ethanol has been a common component in gas in the Denver area for nearly two decades. And this has nothing to do with the current corn lobby. Ethanol has been added in the winter to help Colorado conform to the federal Clean Air Act. Dustin claims that burning ethanol in gasoline increases the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) produced over burning just gas. The assumptions for this claim need to be explained, since the combustion products of ethanol actually include 21% less CO2 than gasoline. But the real reason to add ethanol is the resultant reduction of fine particulate matter, carbon monoxide (CO), ozone, benzene, and other toxic gasses in exhaust. Though I agree that CO2 is something we should worry about for global warming reasons, it is, none the less, a common non-toxic gas that is produced by nearly every form of life. Carbon monoxide, ozone, and benzene, on the other hand, are toxic gasses that cause all sorts of health issues to those unfortunate enough to breathe them (and turn into CO2 after awhile anyways). The effect of adding ethanol is to convert these toxic gasses into the much less dangerous CO2. So, though I admire Dustin’s concern over global warming, I find it unfortunate that he has only looked at one side of the coin and claimed that to be bad, without realizing how much worse the alternative is. Please reconsider your avoidance of ethanol-oxygenated gasoline, as I would much rather pump a slightly higher amount of CO2 into the environment than something much worse.