Go, and Sin No More

 | 

Frantically focused special interest groups have a habit of defeating their own goals, hurting their own self-interest by an excessive pursuit of it. Labor unions are a classic instance: they have often been so greedily intent on exacting every concession from the companies they are bargaining with that they put the companies out of business, and their own members out of work.

Environmentalist groups are another classic case. They have routinely pushed programs that allegedly benefit the environment, but in reality do not. For example, they helped stop nuclear power 30 years ago, an act that exacerbated the very problem — global warming — that so concerns them now. A number of prominent Greens now realize their error.

A recent instance of this phenomenon is none other than the Green giant himself, Al Gore. He just came out against the federal government’s subsidy of ethanol. As he remarked to a green energy conference in Athens, “It is not a good policy to have these massive subsidies for first generation ethanol. First generation ethanol I think was a mistake. The energy conversion ratios are at best very small.”

More surprising still was his admission that his original support had been based on his presidential ambitions, specifically, his desire for the support of corn farmers in Iowa and Tennessee. But one wonders what took Gore so long to wake up. Subsidized corn-derived ethanol has been a dubious program from the day it was first conceived.

The American ethanol program began in 2004 when Congress established a subsidy of 51 cents per gallon for gasoline containing 10% ethanol. (In 2008, the subsidy was lowered to 45 cents per gallon.) It did this in spite of the obvious drawbacks of making ethanol from corn. Ethanol is the alcohol derived from fermenting sugar, and corn is only 40% sugar to begin with.

Very rapidly, corn that was being used to feed animals and people was diverted to the ethanol boondoggle, until the U.S. ethanol industry used, as it does today, over 40% of all the corn grown in the United States, and fully 15% of the corn produced worldwide. One unintended consequence was rapidly discovered —  shortages in cattle feed and human food. This was folly incarnate: taking perfectly good food and trying to use it to derive fuel. As a consequence, food prices increased, especially in countries (such as Mexico) where corn, or meat derived from animals fed on corn, is a staple of the average person’s diet. By 2008 food prices stood at record levels.

The ethanol subsidy program was questioned from the start. In 2005, a major study by Pimental and Patzek (the first a professor of ecology at Cornell, the second a professor of environmental engineering at Berkeley) argued that ethanol actually requires 29% more fossil fuel energy to produce than the energy it delivers.

The reason ethanol advocates didn’t realize this is that they didn’t count the unseen cost of the energy needed to produce the fuel, such as the energy used to make the fertilizer required to grow the crops, the energy used to power the farm equipment required to plant, irrigate, and harvest the crops, and the energy used to transport and grind the crops and distill the alcohol from the mash.

While many pro-ethanol spokespeople have attacked the work of Pimental and Patzek, it still seems clear — now even to Gore — that the input-yield ratio from ethanol is disappointing at best.

Besides the inefficiency factor, there are other drawbacks to ethanol. It is hard to keep water from mixing with it, which makes shipment hard. And it can be destructive to the rubber components of automobile engines.

Worse yet, a major study published this year by the Congressional Budget Office — hardly a right-wing source — revealed that the use of ethanol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions runs about $754 per metric ton of CO2. That’s about 38 times the average price, on the European Climate Exchange, that a European company would pay to be allowed to emit a ton of emissions over its allotment.

The ethanol subsidy program expires at the end of the year. Perhaps the Republicans, bolstered by their support in the recent election, will work to end this pointless program for good. Ending it would save $5 billion a year, and show some common sense about environmental and energy policy.

And maybe they could call Al Gore to testify.




Share This

Comments

Charles Goines

I was forced out of the USDA for whistleblowing to my own supervisor. He didn't want what I told him in an email or when I told it to him. What I learned as I was being tossed in the street is the facts are meaningless. Powerful, educated professionals strive to stay alive by using their power and education. Any movement, even one obviously unreasonable and wasteful, when elevated to the level of "important" will be supported by all the imposed faithful and the unfaithful will be identified and fired. Ethanol was the hot topic of the day and elimination of it will be a hot topic. The only issue is fraud without consequences. If a string of PhDs decide the next USDA hot button issue is something as bizzare as "baldness causes blindness", they will massage the issue for all it is worth and hide behind their educations to avoid consequences. There needs to be serious consequences for fraud!

Gary Jason

The reason we have to subsidize ethanol so much (far more, please note, than we do petroleum, natural gas, and other fossil fuels) is precisely because it is an inefficient technology. And the government subsidy makes pricing misleading: it only looks worthwhile to farmers to grow more because the rest of us have to shovel endless buckets of money at them to keep doing it. What "Awarre" doesn't explain is why nobody was making much ethanol and buying it prior to the subsidies.

But "Awarre" and I can agree on one thing: end the subsidies now. We just disagee on what we think the results will be. He thinks farmers will keep producing it and consumers keep buying it. I predict that, absent the subsides, the ethanol business will shrink to virtually nothing.

I hope the next administration will give us a chance to see who is right.

awarre

The subsidy is 45 cents per gallon of alcohol fuel,not per gallon of E10 gas /gasohol.
If more corn is being used, bought /sold more will be grown .The rising price is a signal to American farmers to do so.Someone who writes for Liberty magazine should get this!
Rubber hasn't been used in automotive manufacture in decades ,any vehicle built within the last 20+ years has used materials compatible with alcohol enriched and/or oxygenated and/or reformulated fuels.Anything older is way overdue to have hoses and other fuel system parts replaced or repaired anyway .Cost me $14 on an old T-Bird and $24 for a full size Ford Econoline van .The 60% of corn that isn't sugar is protein i.e. animal feed- or oil- go look in the grocery store it's clear yellow and comes in bottles.So instead of paying to haul it away they sell it also .It's called efficient capitalism,Google it.
Are the numbers for gasoline from crude oil any better? A barrel of oil is only ~20% straight run gasoline ,and it's only 50-55 octane and has sulfur and other noxious compounds ;so considerable energy and other chemical inputs are needed to upgrade it.That's why light sweet crude from Saudi is preferred to what we have in abundance in the ground over here.No annoying enviro or health safety rules to get it out and less expensive processing to govt standards before you can sell it.Corn was chosen because we have /are able to grow lots of it and we already know how to convert it to alcohol,see White Lightnin' .Better we should have chosen say artichokes ?Or maybe rice ,we grow it it Southern California.
A crop which requires 2-3 ft of water in a region which averages 2-3 inches of rain a year.
Yes do away with the subsidy ,all of them while we're at it ,and then mandate that ALL spark ignition engines(not just cars) be compatible with unleaded no sulfur alcohol enriched motor fuels in 2 or 3 years ,no exceptions for lazy but traditional US outfits like Briggs and Stratton etc .If you can't/ won't build it some other company will.
No such thing as tons/tonnes in metric system so not sure what you meant there.

Don Wills

Did I read that right? The subsidy ends at the end of 2010?

Visitor

I wonder how much Al Gore has made off of his "Documentary"? An English Judge ruled that it had 9 "alarmist" mis-truths and that the movie was a political one. Gore now questions Ethanol useage? Seems to me he should make a new documentary called "Inconvient Lies". The mans a snake-oil salesman

Visitor

So Gore admits he was pandering for votes in the presidential election, and now blows it off with a 'mistakes were made' non-apology?
And gets a pass on it from everyone except Liberty, Reason and other 'fringe' sources?
That's one of the saddest comments on the media I've read in years.

Mark Uzick

CO2 doesn't cause global warming, although, interestingly, warming does cause an increase in CO2 levels.

CO2 is such a weak greenhouse gas that its affect on warming, even if its levels rose many fold, would be negligible. Even if the level of CO2 mattered, the percentage of CO2 produced by human activities is about 2% of the total.

Water vapor, on the other hand, is a very strong and plentiful greenhouse gas, but cancels the possibility of its causing a run away heating effect by causing a counterbalancing increase in cloud cover.

There is a far greater risk of global cooling.

The next ice age is overdue. It's too bad that AGW is pure fantasy. We may soon wish human activities actually had any significant ability to warm the earth.

I hope there will be continued relative climatic stability until technological advancement allows people to adapt to climatic change with far less pain than there would be if it happened in the near future.

Read "Global Warming,Global Myth" by Edmund Contoski in September, 2008 Liberty Magazine.

http://libertyunbound.com/sites/files/printarchive/Liberty_Magazine_September_2008.pdf

© Copyright 2013 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.