Ethanol Subsidy Needs to Go. Now.

Another black eye for the Environmental Protection Agency. The news out of Washington, D.C., is that our EPA has denied a request to waive ethanol mandates while the heartland recovers from a terrible drought, and consumers’ wallets seek relief from high food prices. Via the Detroit News (H/T Drudge Report):

The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday rejected a request from eight governors and nearly 200 members of Congress to waive requirements for the use of corn-based ethanol in gasoline, after last summer’s severe drought wilted much of the nation’s corn crop.

Later in the same article, Michal Rosenoer with Friends of the Earth offers his assessment of EPA’s decision:

“If the worst U.S. drought in more than 50 years and skyrocketing food prices are not enough to make EPA act, it falls to Congress to provide relief from our senseless federal support for corn ethanol,” [Rosenoer] said.

“The Renewable Fuel Standard is a broken policy — rather than giving us clean energy, it’s incentivizing biofuels like corn ethanol that are exacerbating our economic and environmental problems.

“Congress needs to cut corn ethanol from the RFS entirely to protect the economy and the environment from this destructive and dirty fuel.”

Michal Rosenoer is dead on. Washington does a lot of dumb things, but few things are as transparently stupid as the huge subsidy and fuel mandates for ethanol. If I may, I’d like to offer a few points of my own against ethanol:

(1) Ethanol is a waste of energy. Literally. Ethanol supporters can argue all they want, but the science is clear that ethanol is a net-energy loser, and therefore an environmental loser. This fantastic 2005 Slate article on ethanol highlights the relevant arguments (edited for length):

The stickiest question about ethanol is this: Does making alcohol from grain or plant waste really create any new energy?

The answer, of course, depends upon whom you ask. The ethanol lobby claims there’s a 30 percent net gain in BTUs from ethanol made from corn.

But the ethanol critics have shown that the industry calculations are bogus. David Pimentel, a professor of ecology at Cornell University who has been studying grain alcohol for 20 years, and Tad Patzek, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, co-wrote a recent report that estimates that making ethanol from corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the ethanol fuel itself actually contains.

The two scientists calculated all the fuel inputs for ethanol production—from the diesel fuel for the tractor planting the corn, to the fertilizer put in the field, to the energy needed at the processing plant—and found that ethanol is a net energy-loser. According to their calculations, ethanol contains about 76,000 BTUs per gallon, but producing that ethanol from corn takes about 98,000 BTUs. For comparison, a gallon of gasoline contains about 116,000 BTUs per gallon. But making that gallon of gas—from drilling the well, to transportation, through refining—requires around 22,000 BTUs.

I can’t say it any clearer myself.

(2) Ethanol harms fuel economy. Because ethanol puts out less energy than gasoline, ethanol blends harm your vehicle’s fuel efficiency. What sense then is raising CAFE standards? Another environmental loss.

(3) It’s all political. If Iowa did not have 6 votes in the Electoral College, the ethanol subsidy would not exist. The farm lobby would either split on the subsidy (corn for/livestock against), or oppose it as it is so narrowly focused. Party politicians support the subsidy because you can’t win the presidency without Iowa. Hell, you can barely win your party’s nomination without Iowa.

(4) Ethanol is starving people. Not only are we converting an important food crop to fuel, the subsidy and artificial demand created by government ethanol requirements results in additional acreage being converted from food crops, like wheat and soybeans, to corn for ethanol.

I could go on. Really. But let’s end with this: Ethanol fails every environmental, agricultural, and geopolitical (it doesn’t make a dent in our reliance on foreign oil) test to which it is put. It is a $6 billion a year waste of good money. The only test ethanol passes is the political test. Well, maybe it’s time to start flunking the test-takers.

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