Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Truth on the cob--UPDATED 5.29.05

The quiet evil of the corn lobby
June 28, 2005

The corny con job--Some day someone is going to do a long investigative piece or book on the corn lobby in the U.S., mentioning the effects of corn syrup on health, as a starter. But it doesn’t end there. With the price of gasoline soaring, we are hearing again about the wonders of ethanol, the so-called fuel of the future.

[Yesterday, the Senate passed an extensive energy bill. The Senate bill would require gasoline refineries to add at least eight billion gallons of biofuels like ethanol to the nation's gas supplies by 2012, a provision critical to gaining support from farm-state senators. The bill drew some opposition from coastal state senators who oppose a plan to conduct an inventory of offshore oil and gas reserves, a proposal they see as a prelude to drilling in areas now off limits to rigs.]

It already is used as an additive in gasoline in most places. California alone adds billions of gallons of the stuff to lessen the cost of the petroleum fuel, and in most of the country, what you pump into your SUV is 5% ethanol. Advocates say it burns cleanly (it does), does not harm your car (mostly), produces less carbon monoxide than regular gasoline (true) and is a lot cheaper than burning fossil fuels. It turns out the latter is may not not correct. A study published in an obscure British peer-reviewed journal, Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences (really!) by a Berkeley researcher says that when you figure in the cost of farming the corn making the ethanol, the cost advantage goes up in smoke--or at least carbon dioxide. It costs six time more energy to make ethanol than ethanol contains, according to Tad Patzek. The amount of fossil fuels used to make the ethanol easily outweighs to costs of the energy produced.

Ethanol is heavily subsidized by the federal government as a result of the extensive lobbying of the agribusinesses that produce corn in this country. Patzek says it’s a waste of money. By the way, figuring this out did not take graduate students in rocket science. Patzek used freshmen in a seminar to calculate the fuel’s cost as a class exercise. The conclusion: when you factor in all the costs, ethanol contains 65 percent less usable energy than is consumed in the process of making it. Taken aback by the results, he did his own research and found the freshman (being young) had understated the cost. When you figure in the environmental costs--fertilizer that runs into the water--and it gets even worse.

It did not take long for critics to emerge, mostly charging that Patzek was using a model of ethanol production that is rapidly becoming outdated. Most new plants are far more efficient than the ones that provided the data for the study. A USDA study says ethanol contains 67% percent more energy than is used to produce it, the exact opposite of the Berkeley study.

He has his backers, however, including a Cornell ecology professor who called the use of ethanol fuel “subsidized food burning,” saying the USDA study doesn’t include all the costs of farming.

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