Vermont, March 01, 2011. You have heard about it and read about it. You are using it. The food cost impacts of using it to fuel our vehicles will be coming to your local grocery store soon. The “it” is ethanol, and it is being touted as the silver bullet that will solve gas supply problems.
Ethanol is an alcohol added to gasoline to serve as an oxygenate. An oxygenate helps your car engine burn gas. In the broader scale ethanol has been put forward as a supplement to gasoline to help break our dependence on imported oil, not a new idea.
When Henry Ford built his Model Ts, ethanol was his fuel of choice. Over 100 years ago Ford felt, “The day is not far distant when for every one of those barrels of gasoline, a barrel of alcohol must be substituted.” You might feel he was ahead of his time if your goal remains unlimited energy use in our cars and trucks. The question before us now is will the blend be 10 or 15 percent in each gallon of gas.
The corn used for producing ethanol is grown in the Midwest, so here in our valley one might think we don’t have an interest in this issue. But as a matter of public policy all of us as taxpayers will subsidize the production of ethanol to the tune of 5 billion dollars next year, partly in direct tax subsidies and at the pump in higher prices with a total subsidy since 1980 of $41.2 billion dollars.
Beyond that there are environmental impacts. Prices for corn and the land used to produce corn have gone up. Next year, one third of all the corn grown in the US is projected to go to ethanol production. Economic effects of the competition for corn will soon be felt in the price of food given the large amounts of corn that is used to feed humans directly in corn products and as feed for pork, beef and poultry stock.
Corn prices, projected to hit record highs this coming year, have farmers tilling their land to the edges and taking their land out of the USDA Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The worry here is that when a farmer converts grasslands to corn lands there will be a loss of the wetlands and watery potholes in the grasslands. Loss of the wetlands and potholes would damage the upper Midwest “duck factory.” Since the start of CRP in 1985 the habitat improvements have meant an increase of 2.2 million ducks.
People involved in protecting the health of our fisheries are concerned about the impacts of ethanol production on the water environment. One gallon of ethanol requires 1,700 gallons of water to produce when you add up water use in the cornfield and at the factory. The water either comes from surface water withdrawals or is pumped out of the groundwater aquifers that supply the surface waters. Either way rivers lose reliable flows.
Growing corn can produce an incredible amount of harmful run off, whether through direct overland run off or through erosion of soil, both laden with pesticides and nutrients. The nutrient load in the Mississippi watershed where most corn is commercially grown flows into and will likely expand the 8,000 square mile area in the Gulf of Mexico that is classified by conservationist Ted Williams as a Dead Zone where the lack of oxygen in the water is lethal to just about anything that breathes with gills. The dead zone is nearly the size of Vermont.
It is unlikely that ethanol will reduce pressure on the use of fossil fuels. At best ethanol requires an input of 3 units of energy to generate 4 units of energy as ethanol. The source of that input energy is fossil fuels. The future may hold other ways to produce ethanol but for the present ethanol is an energy waster. When you look at the full picture you see farmers using fossil fuel-powered equipment to plant, maintain, harvest and process that corn into ethanol and then ship it via fuel-powered transport.
Even the notion of ethanol being a response to global warming seems to be stretching reality. Jason Hill, a research associate in applied economics at the University of Minnesota says, “Right now, there is no clear data that shows corn ethanol has the effect of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”
So diverting our corn crop to producing ethanol means higher food prices, costs taxpayers money to subsidize its production, reduces gas mileage in our vehicles, reduces habitat for fish, birds and wildlife and uses at least as much energy to produce as it gives back. This silver bullet is looking a bit tarnished. Federal officials need take a hard look at the tax and environmental subsidies provided to corn ethanol before voting to increase ethanol percentages in our gasoline. In the meantime drive less and avoid the problems.
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David Deen is River Steward for the Connecticut River Watershed Council. CRC has been a protector of the Connecticut River for more than half a century.