Ethanol: Immortal & Immoral

Posted: Thursday, December 9, 2010 at 11:45 pm
By: Ken Blanchard
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Insane-Clown-Energy-DrinkIt looks like the President and the Lame Duck Democrats have cut a deal with Republicans.  The country can breathe a sigh of relief that taxes won’t go up across the board on January 1st.  Another sigh of relief is coming from the ethanol industry.  From the Washington Post:

The White House and key lawmakers cleared the way Thursday night for swift Senate action to avert a Jan. 1 spike in income taxes for nearly all Americans, agreeing to extend breaks for ethanol and other forms of alternative energy as part of the deal.

I don’t find a lot to cheer in this.  It is widely assumed that a significant tax increase would be another shock to an already weak economy.  That might well be true, but maybe it would have done more good for Congress to show that it was serious about getting our fiscal house in order.

As for extending the ethanol subsides, I’m all for it.  I live in South Dakota and work for the state.  We have a lot more ethanol plants than beach volleyball courts.  I figure what floats the state economy floats me, and I am worried about the sinking of fiscal real estate hereabouts.

Of course, ethanol subsidies make no sense on any other grounds.  Ethanol production doesn’t increase our “energy independence”, whatever that might mean.  It takes more energy to produce a gallon of ethanol than the gallon actually contains.  That extra energy isn’t coming from wind towers.  Over the next five years, these subsides will cost us over $25 billion dollars.

Ethanol production doesn’t yield any environmental benefit and certainly none at a reasonable cost.  From Forbes:

Australian academic Robert Niven found that ethanol gasoline lets out more harmful air toxins than regular gasoline. The Congressional Budget Office finds that taxpayers are shelling out $750 for every metric ton (2,205 pounds) of carbon kept out of our atmosphere. To put that in perspective, the carbon-offset company Terrapass values the reduction of 1,000 pounds of emissions at a mere $5.95.

When you add up the environmental costs of corn production, the equation looks much worse.  Virgin prairie has been plowed up to produce corn for fuel.  The machines that work the fields aren’t solar powered.  From Pajamas Media:

A gallon of ethanol emits less carbon dioxide (CO2) than a gallon of gasoline when combusted. However, CO2-emitting fossil fuels are used to make fertilizer, operate farm equipment, power ethanol distilleries, and transport the ethanol to market. In addition, when farmers plow grasslands and clear forests to expand corn acreage, or to grow food crops displaced elsewhere by energy crop production, they release carbon previously locked up in soils and trees. For several decades, such land use changes can generate more CO2 than is avoided by substituting ethanol for gasoline.

Ethanol production raises the price of gasoline and it raises the price of food.  Tariffs keep cheaper ethanol produced south of the border out of the U.S. market, which makes the system all the more expensive but is probably an act of Christian charity.  Diverting corn to ethanol production raises the price of tortillas which results in hungrier children.

But hey, as long as it brings money to the Dakotas and Barry’s own Illinois, why should I complain?  The issue has made odd bedfellows of conservatives and environmentalists, who have united in opposing the subsidies.  That’s amusing, since it was the green lobby that gave us ethanol in the first place.

I can’t help pointing out that subsidies for wind and solar power differ from the above only in so far as they currently do much less damage.  But they are no more economically or environmentally advantageous.

The ethanol regime is what you get when you base your energy on beautiful ideas like “renewable energy” or “green jobs,” and not on any rational estimate of the costs and benefits of energy technologies.

About Ken Blanchard:
Dr. Kenneth Blanchard, Jr. is Professor of Political Science at Northern State University. He writes on political philosophy and sociobiology, and blogs on politics and jazz.

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  1. Dave B says:

    You are so full of BS in this blog. THe energy return on a gallon of ehtanol is positive compared to the it cost to produce a gallon of gas. Get your facts straight !!Ethanol even uses less water per BTU than gas to get refined. The corn used for ethanol is not food grade corn…it is animal feed which still gets used as distillers grain for cattle etc. 6 Billion in subsidies is a lot cheaper than what oil gets by about 7 times. More money is handed out in food stamps. You really need to stop believing coffee shop talk and actually know what your bloggin about.

  2. Dave B says:

    Don’t forget that getting gas to your pump is about 3’x as expensive than getting the ethanol there. The oil does not get to the refinery for nothing.

  3. Dave B says:

    It takes 1.23 million Btu of fossil energy input to make 1 million Btu of gasoline at the pump—that is, 23 percent more fossil energy than you end up with. But with ethanol, it is the other way around: It takes 0.78 million Btu of fossil energy to create 1 million Btu of ethanol at the pump—in other words, 22 percent less fossil energy than you end up with as ethanol. That’s because it takes petroleum energy to drill for oil, but free solar energy to grow corn. (DOE, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy)

    In an apples-to-apples analysis of all of the fossil fuel inputs for ethanol versus all of the fossil fuel inputs for gasoline, Dr. Bruce Dale of Michigan State University has found that ethanol has a +27% net energy value while gasoline has a -18% net energy value.

  4. mrbeef says:

    I still do not believe that ethanol or oil companies should be subsidized at all….should be a make or break deal, just like any other business….that doesn’t get subsidized. With the rising price of corn, its harder for the livestock feeder to make a profit, especially when we are competing with someone who can pay more for inputs due to the added subsidy. As a livestock feeder I recieve $0 in subsidy and I am utilizing corn to produce fuel for humans….where’s my subsidy Uncle Sam??

  5. Donn says:

    I use E-85 in my truck and get 25% less mileage from a tank. So I see no advantage to it except that it is a local product. If it were not subsidized, no one would use it. I am not a mathemetician (sp?), but I figure it does not save any dependence on foreign oil.

  6. Dave B says:

    OH I agree with you Mrbeef that all subsidies should end…If all the tax credits and subsidies for big oil, ethanol and all big business were to disappear then we would prolly be out of debt in a couple short years, but the consumers might be paying 5 x’s as much for everything and need welfare to do so,….who know what would happen…but I guarantee that if you need gas and food…you will pay for it simply because you have to.
    I think ethanol could make it on its own even with oil still getting their subsidy but the playing field should be level from side to side and front to back.

  7. Ken Blanchard says:

    Dave: no doubt you will have plenty to chew on in my subsequent post. Here I only say that, if you were right about the ethanol energy balance, then ethanol would be ridiculously cheap and we’d all be switching to corn powered cars. Likewise, the ethanol industry wouldn’t be marginal, it would be robust. It wouldn’t depend on Federal subsidies for survival.

  8. Dave B says:

    Hey ken.,.what about all the subsidies and tax breaks big oil get? Where is your concern there?You need to really get your story straight and realiize not all ppl are sheep and can be lead astray!

  9. Ken Blanchard says:

    Dave: Okay, lets cut a deal. We agree to give up all Federal and state subsidies for energy production. I’m for it! Are you? What would happen? Let me say it: gasoline would continue to be produced. Ethanol would not. If I am wrong, fine. I am not afraid to be wrong. Are you?

  10. Dave B says:

    I agree…get rid of all of them.. But ethanol would still be around….it happens to be the law. We would be paying a lot more to drive to work….but if its a level field..bring it on. I think you should be fair and find out the total subsidies for each industry…I know what they are but you need to see what you can find…A clue is big oil has about 25 x’s the amt.