Latest posts by H. Sterling Burnett (see all)
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In the early 2000s, ethanol was touted as the solution to a variety of ills plaguing our nation. As is currently the case, those who worshipped at the altar of ethanol placed their faith in a false idol.
Early in the new millennium, oil prices began to rise and natural gas prices shot up. Doomsayers, lacking an understanding of history and economics, popped up, as they always do, to proclaim the end of cheap oil was nigh. “Peak oil” pundits ruled the airwaves and editorial pages.
The United States had recently suffered the horrific terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and national security analysts decried the nation’s increasing dependence on foreign oil, especially from the often-hostile regions of the world from which the terrorists had sprung.
Meanwhile, environmentalists made great headway among politicians with the argument emissions from burning fossil fuels were causing dangerous global warming.
This confluence of events made ethanol seem a solution to America’s energy problems, worthy of government subsidies and mandates. Ethanol, a renewable fuel, would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, enhance the nation’s energy independence, and soften the blow from the predicted extinction of oil.
The problem is ethanol can’t do any of that.
Rising oil and gas prices sparked new exploration and a revolution in technology that greatly enhanced hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. These factors produced an oil glut, forcing peak-oil prognosticators back into their bunkers—at least until the next rise in prices.
The United States now imports less oil than it has since the 1970s. In 2013 alone, our proven reserves of natural gas rose 9.7 percent to a record 354 trillion cubic feet (tcf), and proven oil reserves increased 9.3 percent to 36.5 billion barrels. For the first time since 1975, U.S. oil production exceeded 36 billion barrels.
Ethanol was never a viable substitute for the quality or quantity of gasoline American drivers need. Researchers at the University of Minnesota found if every acre of corn was used to produce ethanol, it would supply the equivalent of less than 12 percent of current gasoline use.
Ethanol production and use actually produce more greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline. Because ethanol has less energy content than gasoline, cars and trucks have to use more fuel and thus produce more emissions.
Nonetheless, ethanol use has grown more than 700 percent since 2000 due to the national renewable fuel mandate and subsidies, raising the demand for and price of corn. This resulted in farmers plowing under more than 23 million acres of pristine land, acreage not previously used in crop production, to plant corn. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has noted this land conversion and the associated use of agricultural fertilizers and pesticides have released an estimated 236 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually. More emissions were released from burning ethanol fuels than would have been released with traditional gasoline alone because ethanol production emits 33 percent more greenhouse gases than gasoline.
While the politically induced expansion of ethanol neither produced energy independence nor reduced greenhouse gas emissions, it did have an unintended, harmful impact on the world’s food supply.
As corn prices skyrocketed, farmers switched to corn production from other core crops. U.S. consumers substituted less expensive rice and wheat for corn, increasing prices for wheat and rice. Wheat and rice are staple foods across many regions in Africa and Asia, so the switch by U.S. consumers increased prices for staple foods all over the world.
The International Institute for Sustainable Development notes: “The grain required to fill a 25-gallon gas tank with ethanol can feed one person for a year, so the amount of corn used to make [the government-required] 13 billion gallons of ethanol will not feed the almost 500 million people it was feeding in 2000. In addition, because corn is the most common animal feed and has many other uses in the food industry, the price of milk, cheese, eggs, meat, corn-based sweeteners and cereals increased as well.”
Ultimately, U.S. ethanol policy reversed a long-term trend of the reduction of malnutrition. In 2012, the United States diverted enough corn from food to ethanol to feed 412 million people—more than half of the world’s hungry.
The federal government’s ethanol policy offers nothing of value; the new Congress should end this immoral food-to-fuel insanity.