How Ethanol Became a Political Gas

With the price of gas settling in at over three dollars a gallon it is time to take a look at that wonder fuel, ethanol. It has a lot going for it insofar as it works and does not come from a place that is redolent with corruption, hostility, political instability, and mental illness.

It is also less polluting than regular gas. World demands for oil are also rising; this is because there are places that were recently poor but now are not, and are consuming hydrocarbons in abundance. Stupidity is also up because two of the big oil producers have not performed routine maintenance on their oil producing facilities, thus yield is falling. This means tighter supplies and rising prices to come. So it has been decided by the powers that be that the future is in ethanol. It is kind of heartwarming to know that somebody is doing something to avert a crisis. Having said that, I do have some reservations about this.

What is ethanol? Take some corn, add water and a fermenting agent, let it sit, and then distill off the ethyl alcohol. (If you add some flavoring the product is called bourbon.) When blended with gasoline in concentrations of up to 90%, it is can be burned in your car engine. In reality the concentration is at most 10% ethanol and 90% gas. To make more ethanol we would have to grow more corn which means cutting down trees and clearing the land. This would reverse a fifty year trend of more efficient agriculture using less land and allowing some reforestation. Growing corn is also energy intensive with all those big machines and tons of fertilizer. Organic farming would lower crop yield per acre, consequently to make up the shortfall, a lot more land would have to be cleared. Say goodbye to lots of trees. While we are talking about energy used, ethanol cannot be transported by pipeline because it explodes easily under pressure. To get it here means using the rails to haul it to tanker loading points followed by a coastal voyage to a local refinery where it is blended with fossil fuels. In all, it takes a barrel and a half of energy to get a barrel of ethanol additive.

If it were not for government subsidies and tax breaks, ethanol would cost more than oil. Since we pay for these subsidies and tax breaks at tax time the price appears lower at the pump. Another hidden cost of this industry is the rising price of corn as food. Most of the corn we eat is in the form of chicken and high fructose corn sweetener, with pork coming in third. We can afford to eat less or pay more.

There is a cheaper way to make ethanol. That entails using cane sugar as a base. But we can not do this for we do not grow enough sugar cane and do not have the proper climate for this form of agriculture, except along the Gulf Coast. Then there is the cost involved. Some of our sugar is produced from beets. To do this profitably sugar has to sell at eighteen cents a pound. Out of concern for those wonderful beet farmers this is the price support level set for all domestic sugar. Cane sugar growers produce sugar at twelve cents a pound and get rich when a hurricane does not destroy their crop. The rest of the world produces sugar at eight cents a pound but they can not export it here because our government and domestic sugar growers will not allow it at that price. If they turn it into ethanol and try to export it to us, the government and corn growers will not allow it because it wrecks their little deal. So we pay more for our cake and fuel too.

Some grasses, pulps, and biological waste would work also but nobody ever mentions that. Besides, corn is patriotic and all-American. We are talking bipartisan support for corn ethanol. That means that we cannot blame one party or the other. I personally blame the Iowa caucuses.

So there you have it. I wish I had a simple answer, but if I did I would be rich. I am not, so tomorrow I will drive to my local gas station to fill-‘er-up and pay.

I will also do something that rhymes with rich.

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About the Author: Robert Enrione