Ethanol not viable answer to American oil dependence

Andrew Roland

Last June, the leaders of our nation declared that by 2022 the United States should be producing 36 billion gallons of ethanol yearly. Currently, this means that factories across the country are springing to life, turning corn into the foulest whiskey this side of McCormick’s. The bad news is that this booze is destined for our gas tanks.

Though perhaps not as exciting as a Jagerbomb, proponents of ethanol cite two nifty benefits. Not only could ethanol help lower dependence on foreign oil, it can lower our greenhouse gas emissions. The problem with this plan is that the U.S. is investing heavily in corn-based ethanol, which is notably inefficient. Luckily for us, inefficiency has never gotten in the way of the federal government.

Corn-based ethanol is a bad idea. It is much less efficient than ethanol created from sugarcane, and it might actually require more energy to produce than it yields when burnt. Furthermore, corn production in the U.S. is so heavily subsidized that a transportation system heavily reliant on ethanol will cost us billions in tax dollars. According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, existing ethanol subsidies amount to about $1.38 per gallon, which at the current rate of production means total tax subsidies to corn and ethanol producers of more than $5.5 billion. Even worse, the ethanol blends currently used in our vehicles result in exhaust no cleaner than regular gasoline. Even E-85, which is only 15% gasoline, lowers greenhouse gas emissions by only 15%.

The small benefits expounded by ethanol enthusiasts come with a tremendous cost – we are turning food into fuel. Our current ethanol production, which only comprises 3.5% of our gasoline consumption, requires 20% of our nation’s entire corn crop. In other words, as two University of Minnesota economists claim, the amount of ethanol required to fill a typical SUV’s gas tank requires around 450 pounds of corn. Such an amount of corn would yield enough calories to feed a person for a year.

Increased conversion of corn to ethanol will have worldwide impacts. Corn grown in the United States makes up 70 percent of worldwide corn exports. In total, we grow 40 percent of the world’s corn crop. Regardless of such large corn yields, if we were to devote our entire corn crop to ethanol production we would only be able to replace about 12 percent of our gasoline consumption. Our use of corn has already made a tremendous impact on the world’s food supply. According to an article in Rolling Stone, the price of corn has doubled in the past two years.

Our American propensity for consumption is already unrivaled. We have more cars than licensed drivers, and some of our most common health problems come from overconsumption, whether it be food, alcohol or whatever. Choosing to run our automobiles with food promises to be the most insidious form of conspicuous consumption we’ve ever created.

As a possible solution to our nation’s energy crisis, corn-based ethanol has the most important ingredient for success – it doesn’t really change anything, so it doesn’t really piss anyone off. Everyone loves ethanol: oil companies, auto makers and farmers. Rather than making a step toward a real solution to our oil dependence, our leaders are choosing to stick as close to the status quo as possible. Such political convenience comes with a cost, however. By choosing to place our stock in corn-based ethanol, we are choosing to burn food. Ethanol has potential, but we need better solutions to our oil dependence.