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Spin Cycle: Don't Believe Everything You Read About Ethanol from Corn

After taking in some of the number and pros and cons about ethanol, it’s pretty clear that ethanol born from corn is not a particularly viable solution for an alternative to an oil-based economy; it just takes too many resources and has consequences too far-reaching, in terms of negative environmental and economic impact, to be a more than a stop-gap solution. Yet, perception is in the mind of the beholder; as we mentioned yesterday, it’s all about choosing whom to listen to, and having the right information to make that choice.

Corn-based ethanol boosters are smart. They market the issue from a couple of different standpoints, covering lots of bases. Point your browser here [www.ethanolfacts.com] and you’re treated to the above graphic, along with some other interesting info: “Ethanol offers a number of benefits to our cars, our environment, our economy and our national security. We’ve provided the basics on America’s clean-air, renewable fuel…” We can’t dispute any of this information — it’s true that ethanol burns cleaner, leaving fewer deposits in your engine over time, that, when burned, it doesn’t produce as much greenhouse gas as gasoline, that it boosts the American economy and reduces our dependence on foreign oil — but, as with many too-good-to-be-true schemes, the devil is in the details.

Take a peek at the bottom of the page: © National Corn Growers Association. Ah. Of course they like corn-derived ethanol; they get subsidies for growing the stuff, while reaping the economic rewards as the price of corn continues its meteoric rise. What they aren’t as willing to admit, of course, is that corn is a highly (petroleum-based) fertilized, highly pesticide-sprayed, energy-inefficient crop that, when treated as above, adds to the problems of industrialized agriculture by poisoning soil, water supplies (both freshwater and underground) and the surrounding land, used for other agriculture, including some other things that we like to eat. This list goes on from there, from all the resources required to harvest, transport, brew and transport (again) the fuel to the decreased miles per gallon you’ll get burning the stuff. It’s a quick (and somewhat simplified) example of where following the money (and reading the fine print) can get you.

But that’s just one site, sponsored by one group of ethanol fans. Is this an isolated example? Click on over here [www.ethanol.org], to the American Coalition for Ethanol, “the grassroots voice of the U.S. ethanol industry, the nation’s largest non-profit association dedicated to the use and production of ethanol” whose members include “ethanol producers, industry suppliers, associations, and individuals who care about renewable fuel.” We care about renewable fuel, so we should be interested in what they have to say, right? Hmm. The next paragraph states, “Ethanol drives economic development, adds value to agriculture, and moves our nation toward energy independence. It cleans America’s air and offers consumers a cost-effective choice at the pump. This year the U.S. ethanol industry will grow to provide more than 6 billion gallons of clean burning fuel for our country’s supply. Please use this site to learn more about ethanol and its many benefits.” Digging a bit deeper into the site, we find that many of the same marketing gimmicks are used here, with articles and reports that, “analyze how the establishment of a nationwide RFS (renewable fuel standard) would affect consumers and shows that adding ethanol to our gasoline pool could reduce the cost of gasoline to consumers by 6.6 cents per gallon.” Further appealing to our need to save cash, “This research found that ethanol-blended fuel could save consumers as much as eight cents per gallon at the retail level. Oil companies sometimes pass up ethanol, ignoring its cost-effectiveness and relying on higher priced crude oil and imported gasoline.” Okay, well what about all that mumbo-jumbo about the negative energy balance? “This most recent study by the USDA finds ethanol’s energy balance to be positive – an average 67% more energy in a gallon of ethanol than it takes to produce it.” The USDA, of course, is a government agency, funded and overseen by Congress, a body of government designed to have the best interests of the American people in mind, but who have been known to be involved with special interests (like, perhaps, the American Coalition for Ethanol) from time to time. Not to get too conspiracy theory-ish here, but it’s important to realize that just because it looks like a duck and talks like a duck doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll migrate south for the winter or taste delicious with orange sauce over rice.

So, again, we encourage readers to do some homework and make the decision on their own about things like ethanol, but don’t be afraid to be skeptical and always be aware that following the money trail can lead to a surprise.