Correcting the Ethanol Mistake

Published June 3, 2008

In April, Texas Gov. Rick Perry asked the Environmental Protection Agency for a one-year reprieve on the national standard aimed at increasing ethanol use across the country. Currently, the federal government requires that 9 billion gallons of ethanol be added to the fuel supply nationwide.

While the advocates of corn ethanol as a fuel additive may say it has economic and environmental benefits, research shows ethanol is not the marvel it’s made out to be.

The use of corn for fuel leaves cattle ranchers and poultry producers competing against oil companies for the coveted grain. Texas’s cattle and beef industries have suffered from the current push for corn ethanol: The cost of feed for cattle has tripled since 2004. This year alone, ethanol will cost the state of Texas $3.6 million.

Concerning ethanol’s environmental impact, researchers at the University of California – Berkeley found ethanol production consumes 29 percent more fossil fuel energy than its use as a fuel additive saves. Even this does not take into account the amount of fuel expended in transporting ethanol, which is more difficult and expensive to transport than gasoline.

The Environmental Protection Agency has until July to render a decision regarding Texas’s request for an ethanol mandate waiver. It is a good time for other states reexamine their own ethanol policies as well.

The following articles offer additional information on this topic.

Cornell Ecologist’s Study Finds that Producing Ethanol and Biodiesel from Corn and Other Crops Is Not Worth the Energy
Turning plants such as corn, soybeans, and sunflowers into fuel uses much more energy than the resulting ethanol or biodiesel generates, according to a new Cornell University and University of California-Berkeley study. This Cornell University news release summarizes the findings of that study.

Ethanol Worse for Climate than Gasoline
National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” program features Tim Searchinger, a visiting scholar at Princeton University, who has studied the biofuel industry’s negative effect on the environment. “As long as the starting material is grown on farmland, Searchinger says, biofuels will be bad for the planet.”

Biofuels Emissions May Be ‘Worse Than Petrol’
This New Scientist news release describes two new studies that demonstrate how biofuels could increase greenhouse gas. The studies “join a growing list of studies questioning whether switching to biofuels really will help combat climate change.” The news release provides links to the full text of the studies themselves, both published in the journal Science.

Biofuel Farming Looks to Be an Environmental Disaster
This essay offers another take on the two Science studies referred to above. Both studies found changes in land use related to biofuel production would be a significant source of greenhouse gases in the future.

Climate Change and Energy: The True Cost of Biofuels
An interview with Joe Fargione, a regional scientist for the Nature Conservancy and author of one of the studies published by Science. Fargione says,”Converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands to produce biofuels in Brazil, Southeast Asia, and the United States creates a ‘biofuel carbon debt’ by releasing 17 to 420 times more carbon dioxide than the fossil fuels they replace.”

Fuel Choices, Food Crises and Finger-Pointing
This New York Times article highlights the growing international opposition to policies in the United States and Europe to promote ethanol at a time when “political leaders from poor countries are contending that these fuels are driving up food prices and starving poor people.”

The Clean Energy Scam,9171,1725975,00.html
This Time magazine article contends the biofuel boom “is doing exactly the opposite of what its proponents intended: It’s dramatically accelerating global warming, imperiling the planet in the name of saving it.” Biofuels are hiking world food prices and endangering the hungry. According to Time, “the grain it takes to fill an SUV tank with ethanol could feed a person for a year.”

Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other environment topics, visit The Heartland Institute’s Web site at and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, you may contact me at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].