By John Chuckman
Ethanol has always been a poor choice as a fuel, but the scientific and economic considerations behind that statement don't stop politicians from claiming otherwise.
American use of ethanol blended into gasoline actually represents a hidden subsidy to corn farmers, a subsidy on top of other subsidies, because American corn production itself has long been subsidized. The American program, to be expanded now by a leader widely recognized for wisdom and insight, George Bush, subsidizes farmers hurt by the abundance of their own subsidized production.
Subsidies plus the extent of Midwestern farmland suitable for its production are why America produces such an abundance of corn. Its use in motor fuel on any scale started as a way to stretch America's fuel supply in the face of Arab anger over foreign policy.
But it does not really do this. Although numbers naturally change over time, ethanol has roughly 70% the energy content of gasoline, yet it costs about 40% more to produce and distribute. In order to deliver this economic bargain to motorists, the government forgoes taxes paid by the users of gasoline, taxes which, of course, pay for important government services.
You don't need to study economics to appreciate that as a bad bargain.
In the years since the original strategic argument, arguments for the use of ethanol in fuel have developed around its being a benefit to the environment. It is no surprise that many embrace this at first hearing: growing something for fuel just sounds cleaner and healthier than using a minerals dug out of the ground.
But this is a false argument, false at several levels. If you have a certain distance to drive, requiring a certain amount of energy, you will have to fuel up more often, and you will be paying the same or more for this privilege with ethanol as part of each fill-up.
The motorist, re-fueling his or her car, will not be aware that significant amounts of petroleum products go into growing corn before any fuel is manufactured. Tractors, harvesters, trucks, and conveyor belts don't run on alcohol, and agricultural chemicals aren't derived from it.
It will be the furthest thing from the motorist's mind that ethanol for fuel cannot be shipped by pipeline, the cheapest form of shipping liquids and gases, because ethanol picks up water on it way underground, so ethanol must use more expensive truck transport, and what do the trucks run on?
The motorist also likely will not be aware that while burning some ethanol with gasoline reduces carbon dioxide emissions, if you account for the carbon dioxide emissions of the corn's production, there is almost no net gain.
A recent, published finding that ethanol increases ozone in the lower atmosphere is also unlikely to drift through his or her thoughts while squeezing the pump handle. Ozone is a constituent of smog which affects those with respiratory problems. Ironically, ozone in the lower atmosphere is itself a greenhouse gas.
Now, corn is a staple food for many poor people, especially throughout the Americas, and it is a simple matter of supply and demand that if large quantities of corn go to fuel, poor Mexicans and others will be eating less because its bounty in the food supply will drop. In very small quantities, this effect is almost invisible, but in large quantities - and what is the use of such programs if they do not become large? - it will become painfully obvious.
Canada's Conservative government , a government whose previous environmental minister became an international embarrassment to the country, is in a desperate search for some environmental goodness to smear on its face as political war-paint and has discovered the mumbo-jumbo of ethanol.
Recently, it has run a television ad, over and over, done in fake cinema verité style showing vignettes of an odd little man with the sardonic smile of a skull asking citizens on the street about growing "our own fuel." It even features a scene of the would-be comic dancing spontaneously on the sidewalk with someone in celebration of growing your own fuel. It ends with another man announcing proudly to the astonished little man that his great hulking SUV actually uses ethanol. Will wonders never cease?
Why do governments do this kind of thing? Well, ethanol as fuel allows you to brag about doing all kinds of good things--of course, the bragging is done by stating partial truths, but isn't that what all advertising is, partial truth?--while you dish out a new subsidy to some of your constituents. And you get to advertise what you are doing at the expense of your listeners.
Ethanol-as-fuel's other great attraction is that politicians get to hide for a while from the real solutions, such as simply raising vehicle efficiency standards, which require some courage. What a sweet scam.
© PROMETHEUS 119/2007
PROMETHEUS, Internet Bulletin - News, Politics, Art and Science. Nr. 119, May 2007