Bad Gas


New at Reason: Ron Bailey looks at the most renewable fuels of them all: corn subsidies and ethanol mandates.

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  1. That USDA study is highly suspect. The study claims that “Production of corn-ethanol … yields 34 percent more energy than it takes to produce it”?! How can that be? Isn’t that what is more commonly called a pertual motion machine? You put in X units of energy and the machine prodcues 1.34 * X units of energy?!!

  2. Swamp justice,

    The idea of plants producing more energy than it takes to grow them refers to human energy and human effort. Most of the energy used to raise a plant is simple sunlight, which doesn’t cost us anything. If you found a physicist to factor in the solar energy in addition to what humans must do, then you’ll see ethanol obeys the laws of thermodynamics same as anything else. (If, however, the plants were grown underground with electric light instead of sunlight, then it would be anet loss from our perspective.)

  3. Well, Zathras, the alternative to growing corn for ethanol via modern techniques isn’t necessarily growing corn for ethanol organically. The alternative to growing corn for ehtanol is not growing corn for ethanol at all, in which case all that land can go back into a natural state.

    I have never understood why environmentalists are all in favor of plowing millions of acres of grassland and prairie under to grow corn that won’t even be used for food.

  4. I have the sneaking suspicion that we’d get more energy in net by burning the paper used to draft the bill.

  5. Whether putting millions of acres into corn production for ethanol is an environmentally friendly thing to do depends in part on what land it is and how the corn is grown.

    The United States has abundant flat, fertile land that can produce large quantities of corn or other grains without requiring excessive amounts of chemical inputs or producing large amounts of sediment run-off into nearby streams (in fact, a case can be made that using fewer pesticides and fertilizers to grow the same amount of corn on a larger area of land is better for the environment than doing things the other way around). However, the easiest way for many individual farmers to increase corn production is to plant more land, and not all of this will be either flat nor very fertile. Non-point source pollution of streams and rivers is the result of increasing cultivation of this kind of land.

    Because this farm run-off is an increment to NPS pollution that happens anyway, calculating its cost is difficult. To complicate things further, some of that cost involves things like paying for government dredging projects intended to subsidize the unprofitable barge industry on the Mississippi — in other words, it is avoidable. Nevertheless, it would be foolish to pretend that the cost of additional corn production on run-off prone lands does not exist.

    The other aspect to this issue that deserves more attention is the extent to which government programs related to agriculture are working at cross-purposes. Ethanol subsidies are intended to increase the market price of corn, but the corn program ensures that ethanol producers will pay more for corn than they would in a free market (and taxpayers, of course, make up the difference between what corn farmers can get on the market now and what Congress thinks they should get). Meanwhile the government has a program — a very large program — for taking erodible land out of cultivation for a multi-year period. Artificially increasing the market price for corn through ethanol subsidies makes this program less attractive to farmers in corn producing states, making it somewhat more likely that land enrolled in the program (called the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP) will be marginal cropland in western states where runoff is a lesser concern.

    On a political level, ethanol subsidies show just how completely hardwired into the Presidential nomination process both political parties are. Ethanol matters to Iowa more than to any other state. With a Senate Finance Committee chairman from that state we might have ethanol subsidies anyway, but the fact that ethanol has no prominent critics among the Democratic Presidential candidates — mostly members of Congress — or in the politics-obsessed Bush administration surely has to do with the importance of the Iowa Presidential caucuses more than anything else.

  6. don’t forget the advances in gm maize, which are increasing output/acre while reducing chemical use — and could be modified to increase the simple starch content of the ear, and therefore its ethanol output.

  7. mak,

    That is a funny thought. How go the greenies if we eliminate fossil fuels by way of gm crops?


  8. Swamp Justice

    It also takes energy to get crude oil out of the ground and then to convert it to gasoline or even to asphalt to use in asphalt mixes for roads.

    So, no, put simply, you put in so many “units of energy” and the thing already has so many other “units of energy” and you get out another number of “units of energy”. By this measure ethanol fails. So apparently do things like oil shales and many other sources. So for the time being we’re stuck with conventional crude oil sources, which when converted to final products give us more energy than are used to create them.

    So you’re not technically right tho you’re right in the end.

  9. Actually, RCD, if you polled staff at the major Washington environmental groups you might find that most of them don’t think any more of ethanol than you (or I) do. The trouble is that these groups decided collectively some years ago to make themselves a force within Democratic Party politics, and those politics are as I said earlier tied closely to the requirements of winning the caucus in Iowa. The enviros therefore tend publicly to emphasize other issues, issues where mostly Republicans are on the other side. Also, as a tradeoff for not attacking ethanol the enviros get some farm state support for their boondoggle alternative energy ideas (technologies that are “alternative” because they tend not to produce that much energy).

  10. I cannot help but think we would be better served by investing in nuclear energy in combination with hydrogen fuel cells.

  11. Zathras-

    You make an interesting point about Iowa. But New Hampshire is of about the same importance in the primaries (we can quibble about which is more important than the other, but both are clearly important). Yet NH pays more in taxes than it gets in federal spending, while Iowa pays less in taxes than it gets in federal spending. Now there are all sorts of variable affecting federal spending and taxes, but it’s clear that Iowa gets a sweet deal from DC while New Hampshire gets less of a deal.

    Maybe it’s because of the general election rather than the primary. Midwestern states have been swing states and bellweather states in recent years, so as a region the midwest will get lavish attention from candidates. NH has not (to the best of my knowledge) been a highly sought-after prize in recent Presidential general elections.

  12. Will,

    There is currently a project at the Savannah River Technology Center in Aiken, SC, for just such a purpose. Check it out at:

  13. >


    You are correct that the plants get their energy from the Sun. (Most of it at least — they do also get some energy from the fertilizers applied to them, and if irrigated, the energy used to pump water to them.)

    But the issue isn’t how much energy the plants use, but how much energy the entire ethanol production cycle uses. And unfortunately it takes more energy to make ethanol than one gets back when burning it.

    If ethanol production actually returned more energy than it consumed, ethanol production plants could be self-sustaining. But they’re not. So far, all ethanol plants built must have an external source of energy to keep them running, and that external source is usually in the form of natural gas.

    The hard truth of the ethanol industry is that the more our national energy policy depends on ethanol, the faster we will deplete our fixed supply of fossil fuels. There are better things to do with fossil fuels than to burn them up making ethanol.

    Best regards,

    Gary Dikkers

  14. EMAIL:
    DATE: 02/28/2004 11:12:41
    Some things cannot be taught, only discovered.

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