Is Ethanol the Answer?
Ethanol's boosters are confident farmers will plant more acres and increase the yield of corn per acre, with the help of new seed and genetic engineering technologyeasing the price pressure. But for now, the futures market shows corn prices climbing further. That's despite the fact that farmers are on track to plant 88 million acres of corn this yearup 10 million over 2006 and more than has been planted in the United States at any time since the 1940s, when crop yields were a fraction of today's.
The frenzy for the new yellow gold is not without environmental consequences, either. Plenty of greenhouse-gas emitting fossil fuels are used to produce ethanoltractors in the field, trucks on the road, and nitrogen-based fertilizer born of natural gas. Some say that ethanol actually uses more energy than it returns. But only one oft-quoted study arrived at this conclusion by using apparently obsolete data. A Congressional Research Service analysis last year concluded that "most studies give corn-based ethanol a slightly positive energy balance." A tepid endorsement, at best.
On climate issues, researchers are concerned with ethanol's reliance on natural gas or coal throughout the production process. "Overall benefits in terms of ... greenhouse gases are limited," concludes crs. That problem may get worse with the emergence of coal-fired ethanol plants, like one that opened last month in Richardton, N.D. Bob Dinneen of the Renewable Fuels Association points out relatively clean natural gas is the industry standard, and he believes more earth-friendly plants are the next wave, such as those that trap methane from cattle feedlots to fire their boilers. But without mandated emissions caps, refineries may have little incentive to invest in such costly technology.
<[stk 2]>Farmers most likely will grow their corn on acres they normally would have rotated to soybeans. But that zaps topsoil of nutrients while exacerbating pest problems and use of more fertilizers and insecticides, which can wind up in the water supply. Plus, some land currently held fallow in the Conservation Reserve Program is likely to be put back to work. The complex issues throw environmentalists into a briar patch.
"I hate talking about ethanol," says Dan Becker, head of the Sierra Club's global warming program. "There are ways ethanol can be a boon to the environment, there are ways that it could be a disaster for the environment, and the devil's in the details."
Perhaps nothing illustrates the limits of an ethanol-fueled future better than the push for E-85a mix that is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. It's available in only 1,000 of the nation's 180,000 gas stations, and Big Oil-branded stations haven't been quick to offer E-85. Ethanol boosters are hoping independent gas stations will step in, but it's costly.
Trying to expand E-85's availability, the House is likely to pass a bill this year that will direct federal agencies to figure how to make the switchover more cheaply. Rep. Bart Gordon, chair of the House Science and Technology Committee, said such a move is necessary "if this country is serious about reducing our dependence on foreign oil."