Health News Digest

September 19, 2005

Jimmy Crack Corn, And I Don’t Care: Looking At Ethanol As An Energy Sourcecornfield

By  Michael D. Shaw

As gas prices continue to rise, the search for a panacea—some magic alternative fuel—persists. At the top of the list is ethanol, a fuel that has never (and will never) adequately meet the needs of consumers. Derived from corn, ethanol is a perpetual pet project for Iowa’s corn farmers, all of whom demand and receive political tribute from presidential candidates of both parties, as well as a vast array of senators, congressmen and representatives from agribusiness.

The problem with ethanol, which is the same problem that confronts other forms of limited use fuel, is that its environmental benefits are highly dubious, its costs higher than they would seem at first blush, and its large-scale implementation extremely unlikely. Consider ethanol the equivalent of a heavily promoted exhibit about the future from a long departed World’s Fair. This might be a 1950’s forecast about another world that, strangely enough, uses most of today’s technology and design. Or, it could be a bargain basement science fiction construct, such as images of people commuting with jet packs, that would promote gales of laughter in an informed observer.

To be fair, ethanol does have its benefits. It comes from an abundant and replenishable source, corn, that is available right here in the United States. Unlike the Middle East, where political turmoil and economic uncertainty are the norm, no such problems exist in the American heartland. Indeed, the most pressing issues usually revolve around the University of Iowa’s various sports teams.

However, for starters, ethanol is by no means a clean fuel that will warm the hearts of the Greens. The Heritage Foundation reports:

“Ethanol is not environmentally safe. Oxygenates such as ethanol may reduce emissions of carbon monoxide (CO) and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs), but can also result in increased emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx), a main precursor of smog pollution; and ethanol-blended gasoline can lead to increased emissions of acetaldehyde, a toxic pollutant.”

There is, of course, another problem with ethanol fuel: it is a blatant form of corporate welfare. For decades, politicians from both parties have subsidized—and continue to subsidize—this boondoggle. Have they not realized that to actually implement the use of ethanol, service station retrofits would cost billions, and retooling cars to meet the new standards would be phenomenally expensive? But there’s more.

According to Taxpayers for Common Sense:

“Without ethanol subsidies, the ethanol industry would quickly cease to exist. Wholesale ethanol prices, before financial incentives, are about twice that of wholesale gasoline prices. Without various price supports and financial incentives for ethanol and corn crops by the federal government, ethanol would be so expensive, it would not be able to compete with other gasoline additives.”

More to the point, these subsidies have not lessened our dependence on foreign oil one iota. For all the talk about ethanol’s benefits, we still are slaves to OPEC. Frankly, it would take massive oil shortages for ethanol to be of any practical consequence.

Ethanol is an alternative fuel with a lot of publicity but little promise. Increasingly, the whole debate about its use really centers on the role of government. Should the federal government routinely subsidize an industry that, left to its own devices, would crumble beneath the weight of the free market? Or should we rather concede that ethanol’s benefits, which are real, do not outweigh its serious drawbacks?

It is high time to demand an accounting on this so-called fuel of the future. Do our politicians have the will to do so?