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)


  1. zenwick

    Jay, thanks so much for the Big Oil perspective on life.

    Yes, it’s true that it costs more in energy to produce and distribute ethanol than the energy value in the ethanol. The results for gasoline are identical. Have you noticed any Saudi oil jumping out of the ground, refining itself into gasoline, transporting itself to your neighborhood, and leaping into your gas tank all by itself? Perhaps you haven’t been paying attention.

    This same disinformation has been around for years. Doesn’t mindlessly peddling it bother you at all?

  2. almandine

    “This same disinformation has been around for years”… can’t possibly be true, since we’ve only recently decided to turn our foodstuff into go-juice for our cars (Brazilians notwithstanding). What a bunch of idiots !!! And only a true idiot would justify it by saying that the same is true for gasoline. Must be a corn farmer.

  3. zenwick

    almandine, thanks for calling me an idiot. Do you have anything to say, or just name-calling? I can’t believe a blog that supposedly goes in for truth would print this Big Oil crap.

  4. almandine

    Your welcome. I reiterate… disrupting your food supply by using it to run your car is the issue, not Big Oil crap.

    And, if you haven’t noticed, about half of what is printed herein is only OPINION masquerading as truth… yours (and mine I suppose) included. Cheers.

  5. zenwick

    A. Learn to spell.

    B. Gather a few facts before posting your opinion, lest you find it is complete nonsense. You could start with the US Department of Energy website, where you would learn (if you were inclined to learn) that production and distribution of a gallon of ethanol requires the equivalent energy of 1.28 gallons of gasoline, whereas production and distribution of a gallon of gasoline takes the equivalent energy of 1.24 gallons of gasoline. Gallon for gallon, they are more or less equal.

    C. I first heard the same disinformation, from people who should have known better, back in early 2002, so it has been in circulation for a number of years. It is strictly Big Oil propaganda. I’m not a corn farmer, by the way; just someone who hopes we can take control of the government away from the oil companies long enough to make some headway toward saving the planet.

  6. almandine

    Spelling ??? school me again. regarding petroleum versus ethanol costs in terms of energy expended for production and distribution is one thing, just don’t forget to add the energy yielded by a gallon of each to the equation. Gallon for gallon they are NOT more or less equal. Corn on the cob anyone?

  7. RSW

    Maybe it’ll drive the price of high fructose corn syrup through the roof, and the Harvard MBA’ed food scientists will have to find something else to sweeten our foodstuffs.

    What happens when the government subsidies for ethanol production go away (if it ever happens)? Do the cows and chickens and pigs win?


  8. pondering_it_all

    “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.”

    Jay is guilty of quoting either old sources or liars. The path from switchgrass (or wastepaper for the matter) to ethanol is so well understood that companies are building million-gallon per year pilot plants to do just that.

    The statements about ethanol production using petroleum products omits the obvious: All of those oil-based fuels could be replaced by some of the ethanol or bio-diesel to run the equipment, trucks, trains, etc.

    Finally, we would all be better of with LESS corn (especially high-fructose corn syrup) in our food but that will not really be the case: The government support is just a bootstrap to get an ethanol-fuel infrastructure established. In 10 years, nobody will be making ethanol from corn, or even using arable land to produce ethanol crops. The whole point of using switchgrass is that it is a weed that will grow anywhere with little water or energy input.