18 thoughts on “The Ethanol Scam

  1. Godzilla

    Yeah no kidding. The Ethanol and Biodiesel scams got to stop. Most of these fuels are not net energy positive and reduce the amount of available food.

  2. Martijn Meijering (@mmeijeri)

    Ethanol would be fine if it were produced using nuclear energy, or as a byproduct of waste treatment.

    1. Rand Simberg Post author

      No, it would still be an inferior fuel, for reasons stated in the article, but at least it wouldn’t be starving poor people and distorting both the energy and food markets.

      1. Martijn Meijering (@mmeijeri)

        An inferior fuel still has value, and methanol has other uses too. Subsidising methanol and mandating its use are the problem, not biodigesters and the like as such.

    2. PeterH

      If ethanol is a good fuel, based on whatever technology, the free market will choose it without government interference.

        1. Leland

          I get it, except more so for biodiesel than ethanol. The hobbyist that make biodiesel by cleaning out the fast food fry pans have a good technology. It likely doesn’t scale, and may not even be economical for the hobbyist. But I would never blame the hobbyist for taking food out of the mouth of anyone.

  3. Herm

    Lets look at it from a different point of view.

    1. making 21 gallons of ethanol requires one gallon of diesel and one gallon diesel energy equivalent in natural gas and/or coal.. last I heard we have a glut of US produced natural gas and lots of coal but perhaps a bit of that gallon of diesel comes from Canada or Saudi Arabia.. Some of the Poet ethanol mills have an EROEI of 2:1 (the article says 1:1, what happened to the sunlight?) .. this includes fertilizers which consume lots of energy.

    2. Yes the price of corn is higher, it was too low back before ethanol and needed price supports from Washington.. so sorry about Guatemala.. so sorry that your sugar loaded coke is more expensive. All these active farmers producing corn can be switched instantly to food production if needs warrant.. contrary to popular belief dent corn is perfectly edible and preferred by many people.

    3. ethanol lowers the price of gasoline.. since ethanol has very high octane it displaces more expensive chemicals used for that. Yes some cars dont get good results, usually 10% ethanol will lower your mileage 3%

    4. only the starch of the corn is used to make ethanol.. the other stuff such as oil, protein and yeast fermentation byproducts are used as high quality animal feed.. keeping those pork chops cheap. It can also be consumed directly by humans but luckily the world is awash in cheap food and no one feels the need.

    5. Does it worry any of you that leftists are against corn ethanol?

    1. Johnny B

      Why should any product whatsoever need “price supports”? If the market wants to buy it at a given price, they will buy it at a given price. If land being used to produce corn isn’t creating enough value for a farmer to keep farming it, they will find another use for it, or let it go back to its natural state (thus reducing soil erosion, which is rampant lately).

      I have a number of friends whose parents own farms and produce corn, so I understand that it truly is a living for a number of people. But I also see the surpluses laying unused at their farms, just waiting for the price to be “just right” to bother selling it.

      Any market good worth buying should be able to sustain its own price point absent governmental interference.

  4. ken anthony

    The only thing government adds to any market is inefficiency. It’s a crime against humanity, but at a level that most will ignore it. You can measure the inefficiency by how much money goes to reelect politicians.

    Zubrin wants the government to force automakers to add about a hundred dollars to the cost of vehicles to make them all flexfuel. It sounds reasonable, but like perpetual motion is a violation of physics, it still violates the principle above.

    Self defense is the only inefficiency government should be allowed to impose upon us. All others are unnecessary evils.

  5. wodun

    “While ethanol doesn’t make gasoline cleaner, the more intensive farming and water needs of ethanol refining harm the environment. ”

    The land would still be used for farming even if the crops didn’t go toward ethanol production.

    1. Johnny B

      The land may or may not go to crops, actually. If ethanol wasn’t raising the price of corn, some of the land may go un-farmed.

      The other part that wasn’t addressed by your concern, however, is the intense water usage that goes into ethanol refining: 2-3 gallons of water per gallon of refined ethanol in the refinery itself, completely independent of water used to grow the crops themselves.

      1. wodun

        Ya, I wasn’t focusing on that last part, which is a good point.

        But if there is money to be made by planting a crop, a farmer will plant a crop. The land is unlikely to go unused.

        Only pointing it out because saying farming corn is bad for the environment is a bad argument to make. The author should have just left that part out.

  6. PaulB

    Ethanol, if cheap enough, is viable energy. However we cannot produce enough corn to make the needed energy regardless of the method of production. BTW, Illinois produces more corn that Iowa.

  7. Arizona CJ

    My take: topsoil is a finite resource; it does wear out. So, that needs to be part of the calculation, as a negative.

    So too does any imported oil ethanol replaces; that impacts our balance of trade in a positive way. (assuming that we get more fuel out than we put in, aside from domestic-only fuels like coal and natural gas).

    Higher domestic food prices are also in need of considering; these are a definite negative.

    Foreign food prices? On that, I say it’s high time to put America first, so I don’t consider forign prices a factor in this calculation.

    I don’t know for sure, but I strongly suspect that the cost far exceeds the balance of trade benefit. If so, most of the program should be scrapped and mandates removed.

    The only part of the current program I agree with is some continuing research; if the process could be made to be far more efficient regarding energy input to output, and better on the price side, it might be worthwhile in the future. (and research often has other benefits, plus it’s miniscule in comparison to the cost of the current program).

    1. Fletcher Christian

      Why is topsoil a finite resource? Answer; because of deliberate policy. It can’t be inevitably a finite resource, else the Great Plains would have no soil at all – after all, they were there for hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of years before even the Native Americans got there.

      Anything become a finite resource, when it’s used up faster than natural processes can replace it. Examples abound other than Midwest topsoil; off the top of my head, just about any forest anywhere Man has been, Atlantic cod and oysters in Irish coastal waters. And, of course, fossil fuels of any sort.

      The Everglades are producing the material that eventually becomes coal right now, I imagine – and leaching of minerals in such places is probably generating ore deposits. Far too slowly for it to do us any good, of course.

  8. Martijn Meijering (@mmeijeri)

    It’s worth noting is that later generations of biofuel technology use things like corn stover as input, and therefore do not compete with food production, but are synergetic with it. This should still not require any subsidies or mandates, and an individual farmer can easily work out if this will be advantageous to him or not. If nothing else, he could run his tractors on them. :-)

  9. Herm

    Part of the energy expense of corn ethanol is that it needs to be dry if you want to mix it with gasoline.. wet ethanol (5% water I believe) is popular in Brazil, it is made without the final distillation process with huge fuel savings. It can fuel a car all by itself.

    We could make ALL our car fuel from corn if everyone drove a Chevy Volt type electric.

    Think of ethanol as an efficient GTL process for our plentiful methane and coal supples.. also it keeps our farms profitable and productive.

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