Burning the World's Food in Our Cars

It is good that doom mongers like Paul Ehrlich have been so thoroughly discredited.  But could anyone have imagined that not only are we not facing "Population Bomb" style famines, but we are in fact spending billions of dollars of taxpayer money to promote burning food in cars?

I am not sure how anyone thought this was a good idea, since

  1. Every scientific study in the world not conducted by an institution in Iowa have shown that corn-based ethanol uses more energy than it produces, does not reduce CO2, and creates new environmental problems in terms of land and water use.
  2. Sixty seconds of math would have shown that even diverting ALL of US corn production to ethanol would only replace a fraction of our transportation fuel use.

Apparently, Nebraska has reached a milestone of sorts: (HT Tom Nelson)

With three new plants
added in November, annual corn demand for ethanol production in
Nebraska passed the 500-million-bushel mark for the first time, using
37% of Nebraska's corn.

How much fuel has this produced?

"Today, that ambitious
directive has become a reality." Sneller says "At current rates,
Nebraska plants will use 514 million bushels of corn annually to
produce 1.4 billion gallons of ethanol. By the end of 2008, Nebraska
plants will process 860 million bushels into 2.3 billion gallons of
ethanol. Distillers grain, a co-product of ethanol production, is
widely accepted and marketed as a superior livestock feed."

This is enough ethanol to replace about a billion gallons of gasoline (since ethanol has less energy content than gasoline).  This represents about  0.7% of US gasoline usage.  The cost?  Well, I don't know how many billions of subsidy dollars have flowed to Nebraska, but there is also this:

Corn prices have
remained virtually unchanged since World War II. Increased demand from
ethanol production has raised average corn prices by 70% and is driving
an economic resurgence in rural Nebraska, according to Todd Sneller,
administrator of the Nebraska Ethanol Board.

So we have spent billions of taxpayer dollars, have diverted about 40% of Nebraska's corn output, and we've raised prices on corn 70% all to replace less than a percent of US gasoline usage.  If we could really do the fuel balance on the whole system, we would likely find that total fossil fuel usage actually went up rather than down through these actions.

Never have I seen an issue where so many thoughtful people on both sides of the political aisle united in agreement that a program makes no sense since... well, since farm subsidies.  Which, illustratively, have not gone away despite 80 years of trying.  As I wrote here:

Companies are currently building massive subsidy-magnets
biofuel plants.  Once these investments are in place, there is going to
be a huge entrenched base of investors and workers who are going to
wield every bit of political power they can to retain subsidies forever
to protect their jobs and their investment.  Biofuel subsidies will be
as intractable as peanut and sugar subsidies and protections.


  1. Al Fin:

    Biofuels from corn is an idiotic idea. The type of biofuels that will work is fuel from plant waste, cellulose/lignin, glycerol byproduct from biodiesel production, etc.

    Craig Venter with his synthetic organisms, Kior with its "wood to oil" process, and other clever entrepreneur scientists are blazing a useful path to viable biofuels. But we need to ditch the corn approach. It may be good for farm conglomerates but not for anything else.

  2. Flatland:

    Not that I think it will make a big difference, but I've heard that using Switchgrass instead of corn would dramatically help the cost (and carbon output). Switchgrass is a perennial crop and doesn't need tilling or replanting.

    Alternatively, my family really appreciates how other grain prices have risen, specifically wheat and durum wheat, in response to the increased demand for corn.

  3. Jim:

    So is it safe to say that we are already seeing the economic impact of misguided programs whose intent is to "solve" the (non)problem of Global Warming? Is this a portent of things to come?

  4. Ironman:

    You know, there's an argument that can be made that if the U.S. was really serious about producing and using ethanol for fuel, keeping food inflation low (corn and everything else that we now have less of because farmers are chasing the subsidy money and planting corn instead of other useful crops), and promoting free trade in the Western hemisphere, the US should be lowering its tariffs and increasing its import quotas for sugar.

    Heck, now that we've seen what ethanol producers have done in jacking up the market price for corn and all its derivative products, the Big Sugar lobby might even go along with it, since the predictable effect would be to increase the world price of sugar to its "tariff-enhanced" (read: corporate welfare) price in the US!

  5. Nick S.:

    Unless I'm way off base, using current production figures of 1.4 billion gallons of ethanol, you're actually closer to 1.2 billion gallons of gasoline, not "about 1".

    That doesn't figure in trucking the ethanol though, since it's too corrosive to use pipelines like we do for gasoline. Were you figuring that in?

    Using corn for ethanol production is just stupid. Scientists are studying various species of algae to see if they can be used to produce ethanol; I think that's the only way it can be made economically feasible. Algae farms can also be used to filter smokestacks before being harvested for ethanol production, which kills 2 birds with 1 stone. All in all, ethanol isn't a bad idea- the execution in this country is just horrible.

    I think the focus is more on converting algae to biodiesel right now, but both are workable.

  6. tk:

    Using our food for fuel is a bad idea. Not only are corn prices going up but milk and beef prices are also skyrocketing.
    http://www.rangefuels.com/ is creating ethanol out of other biomass

  7. Jim K:

    As if it was not bad enough:

    Some in congress want a 5x increase in the ethanol mandate over the next 15 years. According to the USDA less than 2% of Americans farm and fewer than 10% live in rural areas. How long do we have to tolerate this blatant pay-off to them???

  8. Andy:

    In addition to switchgrass, there's always the multipurpose hemp. Time to end the war on drugs for any # of reasons, including the economy.

  9. Bearster:

    Claims that CO2 causes catastrophic global warming are BS. So why even mention that ethanol mania won't reduce CO2?

    I think this contributes to the global warming Big Lie juggernaut.

  10. davidcobb:

    Just some informational points.
    1) Ethanol producers do not recieve any subsidies. It is a "blender's credit" given to oil companies to offset the replacement of MTBE.
    2) Greenfuel technologies has just completed a successful test at the Redhawk powerplant in Arizona.Production was about 75g per m3 per day of algae using a cheap german matrix bioreactor and exhaust gases. Harvesting technology was the limiting factor. Algae can be processed into approx. 1/3 biodiesel, 1/3 ethanol and, 1/3 feed by weight.

  11. Joseph Hertzlinger:

    I'm beginning to think that putting ethanol in gasoline was actually a scheme for making food scarce enough to have something for Malthusians to point at. It's currently harder to use "Malthus was wrong" as a sound bite; it can only be used with involved explanations that non-geeks won't listen to.

  12. Allen:

    It wasn't that long ago that the American Lung Association was against ethanol because, IIRC, it produced a bunch of NO2 out of the tailpipe which really messes with people.

  13. David B:

    Personally, I think the best use of corn-based ethanol is Maker's Mark.

    I do like the idea of more R&D in non-oil-based portable fuels, because I believe that the reliance on a single fuel for all of our transportation needs renders us more vulnerable to price and scarcity effects. That said, ethanol as a fuel makes a lot of sense for tractors or people who live next to where it's produced. For the rest of us? Not so much...

  14. tk:

    "That said, ethanol as a fuel makes a lot of sense for tractors or people who live next to where it's produced. For the rest of us? Not so much...:

    So do you have an oil well next to your house?

  15. David B:

    "So do you have an oil well next to your house?"

    No, but when shipping energy across significant distances, one needs to be concerned with the efficiency of that shipment. Gasoline is a significantly more energy-dense medium than ethanol is, and many of the ethanol difficulties come about due to shipping the stuff (because of its corrosive effects on rubber).

  16. dorkey:

    Yes I agreed that population is the major problem for us which continuously running for several years. which considered a lot's of problems like poverty, pollution, Global warming etc. Even the rising cost of foods is widely being blamed on the use of grains for biofuels, and the case for the prosecution is simply made. As we are all increasingly aware, world demand for cereals has recently exceeded the available supply.


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