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Corn is used to make ethanol.  

At first blush, ethanol seems like the remedy for our addiction to foreign oil. But did the government really think it through? More....

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The Curse of Unintended Consequences – ETHANOL
- by E. A. Zimmerman
Also see Part I | Part II | Part IV

Biofuels like ethanol have been touted as a way to wean America off foreign oil. Because ethanol (ethyl alcohol) is distilled from plants, it is considered a renewable source of energy.  Growing crops like wheat or corn for conversion to biofuel provides jobs on farms.  Ethanol is safer for the groundwater than the anti-knock compound MTBE.  To top it off, compared to straight gasoline, a 10% blend of ethanol made from corn and gasoline (called E10) reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 2%.  An 85% blend (E85) reduces those emissions by a much more impressive 23%.  (Source: Argonne National Laboratory).  That could help slow global warming.  What’s not to love?

Corn. Photo by Bet Zimmerman
To assess the net environmental impact of ethanol, the whole life cycle needs to be considered. Production of a gallon of ethanol requires 1700 gallons of water, according to Dr. David Pimentel of Cornell University.

Despite warnings over the decades from scientists like Dr. David Pimentel of Cornell, the government apparently didn’t think it through.  In 2008, an estimated 34% of the corn grown in the U.S. will be used to make ethanol. (Source: WASDE)  In the past decade, we have increased ethanol production fivefold.  Congress recently mandated that renewable fuel use quintuple again by the year 2017.  Nationwide, 80 new ethanol refineries are being added to the existing 114.  Taxpayers are funding these commitments and growth. The International Institute for Sustainable Development estimates that the billions in government subsidies for production, blending and sales add up to $1.05 to $1.38 per gallon of ethanol.  

Unfortunately for motorists, because ethanol has only 67% of the BTU energy content than gasoline, it takes more fuel to cover the same distance.  A Chevy that gets 22 miles per gallon on gasoline will only get 15 mpg on E85, according to www.fueleconomy.gov.

But that’s not all.  The demand for ethanol has helped double the price of corn in just two years.  While this benefits farmers growing corn, it hurts other farmers using corn to feed livestock.  Poultry feed is about two thirds corn.  The price of a dozen eggs has gone up 28% in twelve months.  The USDA projects that food prices will rise 4.5 to 5.5% this year because retailers are passing on these higher commodity and energy costs to consumers.  Since the U.S. provides two thirds of all global corn exports, food prices are rising around the world.  This impacts countries where hunger is an issue.  “The amount of grain needed to fill an SUV tank with ethanol could feed a person for a year,” wrote Michael Grunwald in a controversial April 2008 article in Time Magazine. 

But wait, there’s more. To assess the net environmental impact of ethanol, the whole life cycle needs to be considered.  In some cases, forests (including rain forests), which act as a natural carbon sink to combat global warming, are being cleared to create acreage for crops to feed the ethanol frenzy. Fertilizers and pesticides are manufactured and used to boost crop production.  Farm equipment burns fuel, along with the trucks and trains that transport the feedstock to distilleries.  The manufacturing facilities (some of which burn coal), emit volatile organic compounds and carbon monoxide into the air.  Since ethanol is corrosive, it can not be shipped through existing pipelines, contributing to more truck or train traffic and associated pollution.

Speaking of corrosion, ethanol-laced fuel can damage mechanical equipment not designed to accommodate it.  Boats, motorcycles, RV generators, ATVs, tractors, etc. are at risk.  A U.S. Coast Guard advisory reports that ethanol can scour fuel systems (attacking rubber seals), overburden and clog filters, and deteriorate fuel lines, leading to engine failures and potentially fires.  It also breaks down the resin in fiberglass fuel tanks.  Ethanol absorbs humidity from the air.  Water in gasoline is not a good thing.  That and ethanol’s volatility can throw off vapor pressure, leading to cold start, sputtering and vapor lock problems.

A local Christmas tree farmer found this out first hand. “This spring I put about a half an inch of gas in my mower to make sure it would work,” he said.  “It was fine.  A month and half later, I filled up the tank and went to work with it.  Forty-five minutes later I started having engine power issues.  The second I went to full throttle, it shut down.  The repair guy said the carburetor and fuel filter were filled with a yellow Jell-O-like substance.  He had to remove and clean the carburetor and replace the fuel filter. Lesson learned: when you are done with a piece of equipment that is going to sit for any length of time, run the carburetor dry or fill the gas tank and add stabilizer.”

Some of these concerns may be addressed by next generation biofuels made from non-food sources like algae or cellulose.  To date, they are only in the research and development mode.  Fortunately, there are other sources of ethanol.  Each year, Coors produces three million gallons of ethanol from waste beer.  That’s something to ponder while you knock back a cold one after mowing the lawn.

Originally published in the Villager newspapers on August 8, 2008

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