Ethanol Myths? A Thorough Exploration

Add the US Department of Energy to the growing list of ethanol apologists that insist on jumping aboard a sinking ship. They have an entire webpage devoted to debunking five so-called “ethanol myths”. In our look at each “myth” we will see that with all their resources the best the DoE can do is cast a pebble of doubt into the vast sea of ethanol criticism. As we will see, at times they do everything short of outright lying just to protect the image of ethanol.

MYTH: In terms of emissions, ethanol pollutes the same as gasoline or more.
FACT: Ethanol results in fewer greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than gasoline and is fully biodegradable, unlike some fuel additives.

To support this, the DoE cites lifecycle carbon emissions resulting from corn ethanol and projected lifecycle carbon emissions resulting from cellulosic ethanol as a percentage of those resulting from gasoline. This takes advantage of the fact that plants remove CO2 from the air during photosynthesis. Of course, this overlooks the opportunity cost of planting fuel crops. If, for instance, corn were not being grown for ethanol here, soybeans or corn would still be grown for food, and if not for the push for ethanol in Brazil, the rain forests could be left more intact. Plus, citing statistics about cellulosic ethanol, is deceptive. There is a tremendous amount of R&D that still needs to be done for it to be workable.

The most glaring omission, however, is that the “myth” claimed ethanol pollutes just as much as gasoline, while the Department of Energy only offers evidence that the net CO2 output is slightly lower. Burning ethanol also creates greater ozone emissions and while it eliminates benzene pollution, it creates formaldehyde and other pollution.1 2

MYTH: Ethanol cannot be produced from corn in large enough quantities to make a real difference without disrupting food and feed supplies.
FACT: Corn is only one source of ethanol. As we develop new, cost-effective methods for producing biofuels, a significant amount of ethanol will be made from more abundant cellulosic biomass sources.

This rebuttal is just nonsensical. The argument was about corn ethanol being objectionable, and the DoE dealt with everything but corn. At any rate, we’ve already posted information from Oxfam suggesting that as much as 15-30% of food price inflation is due to  the rush to ethanol. As farming techniques, land use policy, and ethanol technology advances maybe ethanol will be more appealing, but the DoE’s argument fails to ring true in today’s world.

MYTH: More energy goes into producing ethanol than it delivers as a fuel.
FACT: In terms of fossil energy, each gallon of ethanol produced from corn today delivers one third or [sic] more energy than is used to produce it.

The Department of Energy probably should have a copy editor take a look at that, because that ‘or’ changes the meaning of the whole sentence. It’s hard to speculate as to if they mean “one third more” or “at least one third more”. Either way, they are being overly optimistic.

With regards to corn, the argument hinges on ethanol’s co-product, dried distiller grain, which can be used as feed. Unfortunately, this feed touted by the DoE as “high-protein” is composed of a smaller percentage of protein than the soybean feed it replaces in the cow’s diet.3 Plus, whereas soybeans can naturally replenish soil nitrogen levels when farmers switch off with corn, if farmers monocrop corn to take advantage of a government-manipulated ethanol market, they will need to use more fertilizers,4 adding to carbon emissions and the problem of dead zones resulting from fertilizer run-off.

In short, anything but modest energy credits is a gross over-estimation of the dried distiller grain, and so corn ethanol is probably an energy loser. The numbers are far more favorable regarding sugar cane ethanol, but remember that Brazil benefits from cheap labor and highly fertile, former rain forest land that make ethanol seem more pallatable.

MYTH: Ethanol-gasoline blends can lower fuel economy and may harm your engine.
FACT: Ethanol blends in use today have little impact on fuel economy or vehicle performance.

This is the most deceptive section of the entire webpage. It is disgusting that the United States Department of Energy would be so dishonest. The truth is that ethanol does provide less energy per gallon than gasoline, that is indisputable fact, and the DoE even admits this. They try to gloss over this by saying that the lost fuel economy is not “perceptible”. Then the Department of Energy has the gall to claim that ethanol “enhances performance” citing octane rating. This is absurd. Octane rating simply means how resistant a fuel is to burning. Buying a higher octane than the car’s manufacturer recommends will have no positive effect, and even cars that demand premium will run fine on regular 87 octane provided they have a modern engine.

MYTH: Rainforests will be destroyed to create the new croplands required to meet food, feed, and biofuels needs, thus accelerating climate change and destroying valuable ecosystems.
FACT: Biofuels have the potential to significantly reduce global GHG emissions associated with transportation, but-as with all types of development-controls are needed to protect ecologically important lands.

Calling this an “ethanol myth” is rather odd. The DoE admits that deforestation is a problem. It will be even more of a problem if we depend on inefficient processing of crops to fill our growing energy needs. It’s good that Brazil and China are curtailing their deforestation slightly, but the food crisis and the push for ethanol have vastly increased the return paid to farmland. It is inevitable that if prices for farm goods stay high, forest will be turned into farmland somewhere.

There you have it: all five ethanol myths have been “rebunked”. All of those critiques of ethanol are completely valid. The Department of Energy needs to stop trying to protect ethanol and get serious about real solutions like wind, solar, and nuclear to provide energy. Once we have sustainable energy sources in place, we can make use of hydrogen and better lithium-ion batteries to run our cars rather than trying to shoehorn food crops into old-fashioned, internal combustion engines.

Sources:

  1. San Francisco Chronicle: “Study Warns of Health Risk From Ethanol
  2. Environmental Science & Technology Online: “Clearing the Air on Ethanol
  3. “The Dirty Truth About Biofuels”
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4 Responses

  1. Very informatve post. Thanks for sharing. I have never been an advocate of ethanol and think it is taking our country down the wrong path, such as clean burning coal technology. Although GM would like ethanol to be the “wave” of the future, it does not address the issues and keeps us more than ever linked to inefficient technology, which I am sure all of them benefit handsomely from – “and we don’t have to build new cars, either”!
    Another issue that most people overlook on the ethanol front is the deforestation of our lands, the excessive amount of nitrogen and pesticide runoff (creating more dead zones in our waterways and oceans) and total depletion of our fresh water aquifers. -GG

  2. Excellent point. We had a post a few months ago relaying an Oxfam report that meeting the EU goals for ethanol fuel would increase carbon emissions 70-fold.

    https://smashthemirror.wordpress.com/2008/06/25/oxfam-biofuels-have-dragged-30-million-people-into-poverty/

  3. […] gas emissions is under 0.34%. Plus, this may be a generous estimate. The government has been criticized in the past for overvaluing ethanol’s coproduct, dried distiller’s grain and for […]

  4. […] such as “green” and the pitfalls of biofuels. One post from a couple of years ago debunked the debunking of several ethanol myths while we have also looked into the prospect of biofuels dragging 30 […]

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