The ethanol scam

New energy legislation is careening toward a calamitous collision with American lives, especially ethanol provisions that will hike food prices and foul the environment while saving little or nothing on fossil-fuel consumption.

The mandate that tens of billions more subsidized gallons of ethanol be used in our cars each year by 2022 is little short of a scam, a gift to politically important corn farmers and others under the pretense that you, the taxpayer, are thereby awarded the enhanced prospect of energy independence and less global warming. No such thing.

Instead, for starters, you are sponsoring a chance to pay more at the grocery store and to keep paying more while the yay-voting members of Congress and President Bush no doubt hope you won’t blame them, as you should.

It works this way, a think tank tells us. Most American ethanol fuel today is made from corn. As biofuel demand for corn goes up, so does the price, which is reflected not only in what the consumer pays for corn itself, but what is also paid for dairy products and beef (cows eat corn), poultry (chickens and other domestic fowl eat corn), pork (hogs eat corn) and corn-based products such as corn syrup. Then there’s all the land that once was being used for other crops that’s now used for corn, meaning those other crops are less available and cost more.

One expert from an unhappy ranchers group is quoted as saying in a news piece that corn prices jumped a rather amazing 21 percent last year, no doubt contributing heftily to a total reported food-price increase of 4.5 percent, more than twice the broad inflation rate. Federal requirements for still more ethanol, which come at a time when the United Nations is warning that world food supplies are declining, will have consequences that cannot entirely be foreseen but could well be disastrous.

To be sure, the legislation does not pin all its hopes on corn; it calls for an even larger share of future biofuel to be derived from such nonedible sources as biomass and switchgrass. Nevertheless, there is a problem here. Some analysts point out no one really knows an efficient means of mass-producing ethanol from that stuff. It just might be that there is no way. For Congress to mandate the use of something that might never be producible is at the least hubristic, if not very, very stupid. And top university researchers have said that even this option could have hugely negative impacts on food supplies.

Before promoting a bright, new future for ethanol and the companies that produce it, you wish members of Congress had heeded such researchers and some of the other studies and analyses in effect instructing them to strangle the idea and bury it.

They might have noted, for instance, that any excuse for the provisions was nullified by Professor Tad W. Patzek of the University of California-Berkeley. He has shown, one article says, that more fossil fuels are consumed in creating ethanol than the energy the ethanol itself can ever unleash in the nation’s automobiles. You get to this conclusion by calculating the energy involved in such operations as making fertilizers for the corn, in wastewater disposal, in transportation and in the processes to convert the corn to a fuel substance, the article notes.

A study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — a free-market group to which the United States belongs — argues that further development of biofuels could have worse environmental effects than producing oil because of “biodiversity loss” and the bad consequences of increased use of fertilizers and pesticides,.

A study by a Stanford University professor, Mark Jacobson, states that ethanol could be more dangerous to human health than gasoline if used in every vehicle in the country, and still another study, this one by Nobel Prize winning scientist Josef Crutzen, argues that biofuel emissions could be a greater global-warming threat than emissions from fossil fuels. Heritage Foundation analysts report that a survey at the recently concluded Bali conference on climate change placed biofuels produced from food at the bottom of a 19-choice list of ways to lower carbon in the atmosphere.

Maybe someday Washington will do something real to address America’s energy needs, but what we got with the ethanol provisions was pretense minus substance or justification, and something worse: increased peril for all of us.

(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)