Exploding the ethanol myth

Exploding the ethanol myth

Postby Oscar » Tue May 01, 2007 6:56 pm

THE EMPER0R HAS NO CLOTHES! Exploding the ethanol myth

by Larry Powell - May 01, 2007

Many of us have met interesting people on airplanes. So did I.

In 1997, I was returning from Brazil, where, as a freelance reporter, I had covered an environmental conference. Sitting next to me on the flight was Elizabeth May, now leader of the federal Green Party. She had been at the same conference, representing the Sierra Club of Canada. Even then, her environmental credentials were impressive.

As we chatted, I proudly told her how I always burned ethanol gasoline in my car, because it was better for the planet. I felt rather deflated when she informed me that it takes more energy to produce a liter of oil than you save when you burn it!

Much of the literature I have since read supports Ms. May's position.

David Pimentel of Cornell University's faculty of Agriculture is a leading authority on this so-called alternative fuel. He was a consulting ecologist to the White House staff in the late sixties and later chaired an advisory panel on ethanol production for the U.S. Department of Energy.

One columnist describes him as "the most persistent, articulate and scathing critic of the biofuels industry." In his most recent study, Pimentel and a colleague conclude, if all the energy inputs are counted, it takes 1.43 liters of oil to produce 1 liter of ethanol.

When the energy value of an ethanol by-product is considered, that imbalance improves. But only a little, down to 1.28 to 1. That by-product is called dry distillers grain which is a fairly high protein feed for cattle, but of marginal use for other livestock. It is the reason that large cattle feedlots are often attached to ethanol plants.

In 2002, Ken Sigurdson of the Manitoba branch of the National Farmers Union issued a stark warning about this model of alternative energy production. "Since ethanol plants are usually accompanied by large beef feedlots," he wrote, "we can anticipate the same kind of environmental problems and community divisions that we have seen with factory hog barns in the provinces. Any provincial plan to industrialize agriculture with factory hog barns has resulted in divided communities; clergy calling for calm, the RCMP attending public meetings and neighbors that have been life-long friends are now enemies. This is the sad reality that is taking place in rural areas."

Sigurdson also reminds ethanol boosters that wheat, which is mainly used to make ethanol in Canada, yields much less than corn, per acre. Therefore, it is going to take a lot more farmland, he reasons, to produce as much ethanol as corn does. Meanwhile, governments in North America are pouring good money after bad to make this dubious experiment work.

The U.S. is subsidizing corn ethanol production to the tune of about $3 billion each year. Trouble is, most of it goes to large corporations who operate the plants, not the farmers. One estimate is that subsidies amount to $7 per bushel of corn, with the farmer getting only 2 cents!

David Pimentel believes, without that money, ethanol production would grind to a halt, showing it to be uneconomical. Canada is jumping into the subsidy game, too. Our numbers are smaller, because our production is much smaller.

About four years ago, Ottawa began the Ethanol Expansion program as part of its strategy to deal with climate change. The program provides money to build and upgrade ethanol plants. The ten-cent-a-liter federal excise tax on ethanol has been lifted at an estimated cost to the federal treasury of $118 million. Exact figures aren't available, but more taxpayer dollars are allocated for research and to make consumers aware of the product.

According to a recent report in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, a single plant, at Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, has been subsidized to the tune of $8 million.

Governments are falling over themselves to support ethanol production in other ways, too. By 2010, all transportation fuel in Canada will have to contain 5% ethanol.

Manitoba will require a 10-percent ethanol blend in eighty-five percent of all gasoline sold in the province by late this year. Saskatchewan has similar plans.

But that's not the end of the story.

Pimentel's studies conclude that the "down sides" of ethanol extend well beyond its negative energy balance.

"The environmental impacts of corn ethanol," he writes, "are enormous. They include severe soil erosion, heavy use of nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides and a significant contribution to global warming. In addition, each gallon of ethanol requires 1700 gallons of water (mostly to grow the corn) and produces 6 to 12 gallons of noxious organic effluent."

In the fermentation process, he claims, every single liter of ethanol produces about 13 liters of wastewater, which must then be disposed of at an additional cost to the public through things like water treatment plants. The negative environmental impacts on cropland, freshwater and air," he concludes, "aren't even known yet!"

In 2001, an investigation by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency discovered that ethanol plants emit certain air pollutants in far greater quantities than previously believed. The Minnesota Legislature created the Agency in 1967 to protect the state's air, water and land. Investigating a complaint, Agency staff found far more pollutants in plant emissions than ethanol and methanol, the two main volatile organic compounds (VOCs) known to exist up to that time. The agency found six new VOCs, including acetic acid, lactic acid and formaldehyde, a carcinogen. Their conclusion; total VOC emissions from ethanol plants was ten times higher than had previously been thought.

In its own follow-up study, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also found carbon monoxide emissions from these plants may have also been significantly underestimated.

To quote the Minnesota Agency, "The EPA determined that, because of this underestimation of annual emissions, nearly every ethanol plant in the nation had received an incorrect air permit—a permit with pollution control measures intended for much lower emissions."

Ken Sigurdson of the NFU writes,"These pollutants can be burned off with thermal oxidizers but the process is costly. In the current business climate we have little confidence in those entrusted to protect the environment."

Furthermore, just how moral or ethical is it, in a hungry world, to be diverting such vast quantities of food away from dinner plates and into our SUVs and Hummers?

According to the World Health Organization, "One in seven people on the planet does not get enough food to be healthy and lead an active life, making hunger and malnutrition the number one risk to health worldwide, greater than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined."

Some "think-tanks" like the Earth Policy Institute fear this whole exercise thrusts people and cars into a competition for corn. According to the Institute's Lester Brown, "The grain required to make enough ethanol to fill an SUV tank is enough to feed a person for a whole year." He warns, the ethanol boom could even plunge the world's food economy into chaos.

In fact, that may already be happening.

Reports of soaring food prices are coming in from throughout the world, brought about, in no small measure, by our fixation with ethanol. Just last month, the Wall Street Journal reported, "One of the chief causes of food-price inflation is new demand for ethanol and biodiesel, which can be made from corn, palm oil or sugar. That demand has driven up the price of these commodities, leading to higher costs for producers of everything from beef to eggs to soft drinks. In some cases, producers are passing the costs along to consumers."

It isn't as if the writing has not been on the wall before. Five years ago, the National Centre for Policy Analysis estimated that ethanol was adding more than $1 billion per year to the cost of beef production for consumers. After all, it reasoned, the more it costs farmers to produce beef, the higher the retail price of the product will become. It also projected higher costs for other livestock products like milk and eggs.

Even the ailing Cuban Leader, Fidel Castro, has gotten into the act. He has accused the Bush administration of toying with the lives of millions of people in developing countries who might starve because of the diversion of so much food into fuel production.

A side-effect of all of this has been a shortage of fertilizer for Canadian farmers. According to news reports, it is being snapped up south of the border to grow, what else, corn.

Sadly, one doesn't have to look far these days to see that all of these findings have fallen on deaf ears.

Despite the cautionary tales, American farmers are engaged in what can only be called a frenzy producing corn, the main feed stock for ethanol there. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, farmers intend to plant 90.5 million acres of corn this year. Driven by the explosive demand for ethanol, that's the largest area since 1944 and 12.1 million acres more than last year.

Ironically, some American ethanol plants are burning coal, perhaps the dirtiest energy source known.

Today, at Minnedosa, Manitoba, with the help of government subsidies, huge construction cranes dot the landscape where the existing plant is being expanded. (Never mind that there may not be enough water to support it!)

Another plant will be going up near Grandview, Manitoba soon along with several others throughout the west.

For me, the nail in ethanol's coffin came with a recent news report on results of tests done in Environment Canada's own laboratory.
Those tests showed no significant difference in carbon emissions between ethanol and regular gasoline!

Why, then are governments so hell-bent on committing millions of taxpayer dollars to expand ethanol production in the name of saving the environment, with so much evidence stacked against it?

Could it be that, despite their protestations, politicians and industry don't really believe their own rhetoric that we must apply "science-based solutions" to our problems?

Are we deluding ourselves into thinking that some magic bullet like ethanol will come along, liberating us from the obligation of actually reducing our energy demands; that we can, in fact continue with business as usual? Surely, as more is revealed about the plight of our planet and our unsustainable demands on her finite resources, "business as usual" is no longer an option.

The ethanol rush has been an official policy of the Bush administration for some time now, as a means of making his "empire" less dependent on foreign oil imports.

Perhaps the powers that be in this country need to be reminded that that we are pretty much self-suffiicient in energy! So our situation is entirely different.

We also need to examine just what economic benefits of ethanol have already accrued for society as a whole and farmers in particular.

The Manitoba Co-Operator reports that, according to an agricultural economist from the University of Lethbridge, Kurt Klein, those benefits - even for farmers - have been greatly exaggerated. He concedes the ethanol boom has raised grain and oilseed prices on world markets. But it has also meant increasing feed costs for livestock producers and made it harder for new people to get into farming, due to high land and input costs.

Are we not now using fossil-fuel-based fertilizer to grow the crops we are now turning back into fuel? The circle (and a rather frenetic on it is) is now complete.

Are our primary producers no longer engaged in the noble job of feeding the people? Or have they become handmaidens to the likes of Archer Daniels Midland, the largest ethanol producer in the States. That wealthy and politically-connected corporation stands to profit mightily in the rush to the ethanol trough.

Is it wise to be pursuing such a questionable technology at great expense to the public purse, while ignoring other steps which could be a lot more effective?

The agriculture industry is very energy-intensive. Since carbon fuels are bound to eventually peak, then run out, surely real progress toward a sustainable future can only be made by embracing that industry in ways more meaningful than a questionable fuel additive.

If we can make hybrid cars and hydrogen buses, for example, why not hybrid tractors or hydrogen combines?

The key to the future must include conservation, above all else.

Larry Powell is a journalist and vegetable producer near Roblin, MB.
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