It's Been A While Since I Dissed on Ethanol...

... so it's probably about time.  Kevin Drum has a very cogent analysis of all the issues, and is, if anything, givin ethanol the benefit of the doubt with some of the numbers he uses.  He ends by echoing something I have said any number of times:

Bottom line: corn ethanol is no greener than gasoline. In fact, it's almost certainly less green, and at the very least, there's no urgent need for the U.S. government to pay billions of dollars to subsidize its production. Too bad Iowa is the first state on the primary calendar every four years, isn't it?

What I find amazing is that when he wants to, Drum can be quite insightful about this kind of political failing,  What I don't understand is why he continues to advocate programs like government health care that are almost assured of being dominated by the same horrible incentives and decision-making.  Under either the House or Senate health care bills, for example, just imagine the line of lobbyists who will be working to get their pet procedures covered under insurance  must-cover rules.  How can he possibly imagine that the same Congress that votes for ever-expanding ethanol subsidies is going to make good cost-benefit tradeoffs based on science for health care procedures?   Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definiation of, what?


  1. Pat Moffitt:

    Inciteful is possible when a red state is involved. Ethanol however may be the dumbest thing we have ever done--and if one looks at the impact on the cost of grain in the 3rd world gets real close to evil.
    Many of our worst environmental abuses result from susbsidized agriculature-- but only this one makes food more expensive.

  2. Sean Wise:

    Ethanol in gasoline is pure politics. The EPA is scheduled to make a recomendation in May on E15 which is coincident with the scheduled re-examination of the climate bill with a final decision some time in the summer. This is just about votes in the senate on the climate bill and nothing else. Speaking of tinkering, have you ever noticed that when nurses strike in California wanting to implement new rules to increase staffing that the hospitals they work for never complain about the cost, only that they cannot get qualified nurses. What kind of parallel universe are they in that costs don't matter? Well it turns out that all that has to happen is for the hospital, the nurse's union and the local congressperson to go before the Medicare board that sets reinbursement rates for hospitals and the legislator can usually insure that the rates rise to cover the added costs. This has been going on a long time and Congress screamed bloody murder in the early stages of health reform plans when Obama asked that this practice be stopped to save money. Needless to say the proposal was dropped. The only problem is no one, not even the government, can afford the current health care system let alone one where access is expanded to 30 million more people. Also, check out what Warren Buffet had to say about the health care plans moving through congress:

  3. Colin:

    Love the content of the post, but noticed a few errors:


    Not that I'm exactly perfect myself in this regard, but may want to do a quick correction.

  4. Nick Archer:

    A station in Franklin TN is advertising 100% ethanol free gas. A lack of an additive advertised as a benefit! It's my new gas station.

  5. Gil:

    Ethanol isn't green because it requires pollution to process it. Hydrogen isn't green because it requires pollution to refine it. Solar panels aren't green because of the polluting processes and materials used to build them. It looks as though there's no such thing as green technology.

  6. gadfly:

    I lost interest in the article when it got to part about CO2 emissions. Sorry but carbon dioxide is life-giving and essential to our carbon-based life forms on earth . . . the trace gas is not a pollutant of our atmosphere.

  7. Mark:

    Iowa is just one of the big corn producers. Add Nebraska, Illinois and Minnesota, Indiana, and Ohio and part of Wisconsin and Missouri to the mix, and you see why there is congressional interest. Iowa is the biggest, but the interest is in votes from Il OH,IN, and MN

  8. IgotBupkis:

    > Ethanol however may be the dumbest thing we have ever done

    Naw. Given the size, if you take the product of "stupidity x impact x expense", it's pretty high up there, but wool and mohair price supports has it beat hands down for "stupid and useless", and Socials Security and Medicare both have it beat on the product of "stupidity x impact x expense", esp. if you factor in fiscal danger as part of stupidity.

    Obamacare has all of them beat on any metric, of course, but it doesn't yet qualify as something "done", and hopefully will only qualify as "the dumbest thing we've ever considered".

  9. Noumenon:

    Did you know that you and Kevin Drum are currently vying for the title of my favorite political blog? So I especially like it when you give your perspective on his posts.

  10. IgotBupkis:

    Gil, to be intellectually honest, that's a specious definition of Green. Green is a spectrum, some things are greener than others, because they do less harm to the environment than others, when you consider their "lifecycle" -- that is energy and pollution produced in the course of the entire lifetime of the product, from creation to use to disposal (and this should entail energy and pollution produced by either recycling or deliberate breakdown of intentional and unintentional byproducts, if those byproducts don't have an independently useful nature of their own).

    I don't have any problem with the idea of having some preference for "greener" products than less green products, but there are two factors involved which are rarely a part of the decision making process when it comes to so-called "Greens".

    1) A choice should be based on an actual metric of "greenness", which takes into account the above factors, and not some idiotic emotional argument which has no validity and often chooses some markedly less green product as a result. Ethanol is a prime example of this. It's no greener, causes food shortages and higher food prices, costs as much or more than the alternatives, and hence is a stupid decision, not just economically, but morally, socially, environmentally, and politically. But, at the moment, it's politically cheap. So it gets made and subsidized.

    2) Human time (i.e., "expense", in some manner or another) should be a factor in the above decision, too. Both on the personal level as well as on the collective level. If Option A is 1% greener than Option B, but costs an additional 100 man-hours per "unit" of saving, then that may well not be worthwhile (it may be cheaper, in a pure green sense, to actively spend 20 man-hours breaking down the "less green's" 1% contribution, for example). And at some point we may decide that the pollution involved isn't enough of a problem, that we want to spend 'x' man-hours preventing it. There's a point beyond which either the cost is too high or the pollution quantity is too low (or, in actuality, there's a curve based on the levels of those two numbers)

  11. Ron H.:


    If I understand your point #2, you have described the higher cost of ethanol and why it must be subsidized to be competitive with gasoline.

  12. Fay:

    I'd imagine Drum's reasoning is that no one has ever gone bankrupt, died, or both, trying to pay for gasoline. Health care and energy are vastly different products and industries.

  13. Ted Rado:

    As a chemical engineer, the first thing I did when this ethanol thing came up years ago was to do a heat and material balance. In summary, the results were as follows:
    1) All of the corn grown in the US will make about
    1.2 million bpd gasoline equivalent, gross.
    2) The reported energy consumption to do this varies
    considerably, depending on fertility, rainfall, etc.
    The best reported figure I found is that 80% of
    the energy produced is used in its pruduction.
    3) Thus, net production is about 250,000 bpd gasoline
    To grow more corn, marginal farmland must be used, with a probable negative net energy balance. Another obvious point is that, as other croplands are diverted to corn production (i.e. cotton) other commodity prices will go up. All of these new costs must be attributed to ethanol production. It is clear that the whole thing is a total fiasco. Here in Oklahoma City, many filling stations proudly display signs stating that their fuel contains no ethanol.

    The sad part of this is that any chemical engineer could have pointed this out after an afternoon's study. Instead, politicians with an agenda have usurped the engineering process for their own political ends.

    Without going into detail, every other "alternative energy" that I have looked into is similarly fatally flawed, such as wind, solar, cellulose, etc. It would be a blessing if Nancy P. and her cohorts would stop playing engineer and wasting th taxpayers' money. (I am sure that will never happen!)

  14. Pat Moffitt:

    Ethanol joins the Hall of Fame with such notables as growing subsidized rice in a desert that noone wants using subsidized water that every one wants.

  15. Tim:


    Many energy sources like the oil sands take more energy to extract than they produce.
    The key is they take a cheap energy source like natural gas and use it to produce a more valuable energy source like oil.
    For that reason the energy used producing ethanol does not automatically mean it is not an economic activity.

    That said, your conclusions are still right because because ethanol is not adding value by converting a cheap energy source to a more valuable one.

  16. Rapid:

    Crop-based ethanol pales when compared to a more suitable alternative that actually has a chance of working. Advantages: No crop land used. Seawater based. Use vent CO2 from power plants. Less intensive EtOH recovery. Still appears to have technical hurdles but they have good R&D funding and appear to be using good 3rd parties to validate.

  17. ADiff:

    Actually aggregate life-cycle cost (excluding financing) tracks, at least as well as anything, with aggregate environmental impact. It's why it's a safe bet a Hyundai Elantra is a lot 'greener' than a Prius. But the average person's really only aware of the costs accrued in their own regular operation, and seem to think the impacts of production and maintenance happen on some other planet. The same thing explains why anyone could think compact florescent is 'greener' than incandescent. Interestingly most analysis also fails entirely to take into account positive externalities, too. This is especially the case in the latter example.....

  18. Dr. T:

    Nick Archer said: "A station in Franklin TN is advertising 100% ethanol free gas. A lack of an additive advertised as a benefit!..."

    It is a benefit. Ethanol produces less energy and power in an internal combustion engine than does gasoline. When your fuel is swithced to gasahol (90% gasoline and 10% ethanol), your gas mileage falls. This is especially true if the octane of the gasahol is increased (typically from 87 to 89). Your mileage with gasahol will decline even more if you accelerate often (as in typical rush hour traffic when speeds change frequently) or if you drive up and down hills. Gasahol mileage is often 5% lower than gasoline. My car gets 27 mpg with 87 octane gasoline but only 25.5 mpg with 89 octane gasahol, a 5.6% decline. The higher octane accounts for ~2.3% of the lower mpg; the remaining 3.3% is due to the poor fuel qualities of ethanol.

    Note: I was a chemist before I became a physician.

  19. colson:

    is it that drum is finally starting to get it or that his lenses clear only after the point of no return has been reached in public policy failure?

  20. Matthew Brown:

    I suspect he does realize that government health care will be badly run, but considers it the only way (or least bad way) to get universal coverage.

  21. Thom Moses:

    Check Engine on lately? Ethanol is destroying catalyitc converters (P0420)

    Ethanol reduces fuel economy by about 10%

    E85 reduces fuel economy by 30%

    10% Ethanol fuel causes small engine failure.

    Regular 87 octane fuel has 10% ethanol. Don't waste your money. You are buying 83 octane with ethanol added to RETARD the flame. Ethanol burns cooler therefore reduces the PING but also reduces the POWER and leaves SOOT in the exhaust and throughout the induction system.