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End the Ethanol Rip-Off (nytimes.com)
227 points by zzzeek on Mar 11, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 152 comments



I'm surprised and happy to see this in the Times. It's a good idea to avoid ethanol gas, on principle if for no other reason. Processing edible food to burn in your car (with all the implied market consequences) is kinda crazy. Here's a good resource if you're looking for ethanol-free gas in the US and Canada: http://pure-gas.org


The majority of corn produced in the United States is used for cattle feed (and the rest for things like HFCS.) If you think it's crazy to burn edible food in a car, it's about as crazy to use it to fuel cow metabolism. You could feed way more people if you ate the corn, but as it turns out, U.S. industrial corn production is pretty much for anything but eating.


> You could feed way more people if you ate the corn

We're already eating too much corn, no thank you. If you check the label on the packaged goods you buy, corn is pretty much in all of them in one form or another.

We should grow less corn, let the cows eat grass, and have people eat people food (which might occasionally include a corn on the cob).


I agree with all those points. All I'm saying is that if you argue that using corn ethanol as fuel is bad because it's "burning food", then you have to confront all the other ways in which the agricultural system is not really about making food.


Additionally, sugarcane-derived ethanol is far more efficient than the corn-based stuff we use in the US. I've seen numbers ranging from 3x to more than 7x more efficient than corn-based ethanol, which would mean that the use of ethanol could actually be a net reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, unlike what we get from using corn.

No reason to demonize sustainable, renewable fuel - instead, we should look at the agriculture subsidies that "protect our farmers" and see how they're hurting everyone (including the farmers, affected arguably more than the rest of us by global warming) in the long run.


Ag subsidies seem to mainly stabilize price regimes. There would arguably be costs associated with increased risk of production if the subsidies were not in place.

They might be obsolete, but the fraction of people's time spent on food (both as producers and consumers ) continues to decline. It's also argued that the availability of abundant food is a legitimate public good.

Our levels of food security in the First World are recent. I doubt anyone from... say, 1850 would put food security in terms of a human right as we now do.

The irony is that petroleum products are an input into ethanol-corn production. How much I don't know; but the present subsidy regime nearly guarantees some measure of overproduction.


cattle food is going into the food-system as a subsidy for human food... ie it is making high-quality proteing cheaper....

on the other hand, ethanol just makes people food more expensive....and it sucks as a fuel anyway (engineering reasons)...


sucks because of "engineering reasons" - wow, thanks for the comment

Corn-fed beef is not high-quality protein, it is usually feed lot beef laced with antibiotics, andreline and cortisol.


There isn't enough grass to 'let the cows eat' while sustaining affordability for lower income people. That's why they switched to corn, much better density of calories.


And, as a result, we've created the nightmare situation where we fill the animals we eat with antibiotics since we feed them foods that they're not adapted to eat. Not only are we helping to create antibiotic-resistant superbugs but the antibiotics in food also reduce the beneficial gut bacteria that we need to be healthy.

There was a time when people didn't eat meat with every meal...many people believe it's actually healthier. If people can't afford to eat grass-fed meat with every meal, the simple answer is to not eat meat with every meal...poor people can eat vegetables too and will probably be healthier for it.


> There was a time when people didn't eat meat with every meal.

Yeah. There was also a time when 8-year-olds did a full day's work in the mines and malnourishment was the norm.

You should think about the complexity involved in eating a healthy vegetarian diet before you start being dismissive of it. Meat is easier in some significant ways.


You're putting words in his mouth. He never said to not eat meat. He said not to eat it at every meal. You don't need to eat sausage and bacon at breakfast, a rack of ribs and half a chicken at lunch, and a 1/2 lb steak at supper to get your daily intake of meat-provided nutrients. The sad truth is that far too many people eat meat at every single meal, and it's just not natural for us. Balance.


Don't confuse availability with what is "natural". Eating (lean) meat at every meal is quite natural and has been common in some societies where it was plentiful.


You should think about the complexity involved in eating a healthy vegetarian diet before you start being dismissive of it.

Lets not blow the difficulty of being a vegetarian out of proportion. Eating a healthy vegan diet is still difficult. Eating a healthy vegetarian diet is not. There are plenty of cook books describing varied and balanced vegetarian meals. There are plenty of restaurants that serve good vegetarian meals and many supermarkets (at least in Western Europe) also provide the necessary ingredients.

(I have been a vegetarian for 16 years now, almost half of my life.)


And there's plenty of people who live in places where it's impossible to get any fresh vegetables, much less enough of a variety to provide all the amino acids necessary for someone who isn't eating meat.


The US is not one of those places, I would hope.



I would imagine that the antibiotics in cattle issue is far more closely related to factory farming in confined quarters than anything to do with what kind of food they are primarily eating.


There's a class of antibiotics (ionophores) that are used in cattle feed specifically to manage issues with grain feeding. They reduce incidence of "bloat", and increase feed efficiency. They are also used with other feeds, but the purpose is still to manage digestion issues.

I think there is more use of other antibiotics to treat sickness in feedlots though.

(as an aside, this pdf has an amazing and disturbing illustration of severe bloat on the third page: https://www.animalsciencepublications.org/publications/jas/p... Warning: it shows material ejecting from a medical opening in a rumen.)


The two are not mutually exclusive; each carries a significant tax on the animal's health and immune system.

Humans are fairly unique in our dietary flexibility; most other animals are evolutionarily adapted to a narrow range of foods. Corn provides caloric energy, but little more; a cow needs to eat grass, and move around, in order to be healthy.


It is not absolutely essential that lower income people eat beef. More importantly, the state should not be allowed to waste tax payer money on the ridiculous idea that lower income people must have beef to eat.

Why on earth should my tax dollars go to a steak party?


Pardon the pun, but your complaints are incredibly rarified. No one's having a steak party, they're eating burgers and tacos in between their long shifts because of lack of fresh produce and time to cook it.


The government cannot subsidize fresh produce instead of the beef industry?


They do. Heavily.

There is an argument that says the Central Valley of California farmers basically funded Reagan's White House run in 1980. Carter was going after payments for all that water...


The average voter feels a burger/taco/burrito is tastier and 'American'.

The average voter probably has also not had /good/ experiences with salads that are actually tasty for reasons other than bacon. (Can we PLEASE stop adding bacon to /everything/ (at least as a default?); some of us just don't like the smokey taste.)


social and society have common root. The great unwashed also like to eat protein and voting power.


> There isn't enough grass to 'let the cows eat' while sustaining affordability for lower income people.

I'm pretty sure there's no shortage of grass. If we turn some of those corn fields into grazing fields, there would be even more grass.

The reason they use corn is because it fattens up the cow much faster and to a far greater degree.

So yeah, switching to grass will increase the price of beef on a per pound basis. Label the meat. Let people choose. Stick a "fed with corn" or "fed with grass" sticker on it. I'll happily pay twice as much knowing the animal didn't eat crap.

We already do this with eggs. Lots of labeling. There's no reason we can't extend this to poultry and beef.


> I'm pretty sure there's no shortage of grass.

Then you should check your confidence level, because you're wrong. Most of the available USA grazing territory is already cow-burnt, and that's before you get things like the extreme droughts of recent years causing mass cattle slaughter and die-offs. And mind you all but a rounding error of these cattle are finished on grain feedlots.


This is already happening; I can now find labeled grass-fed beef at regular groceries as well as Whole Foods. It's expensive enough, though, that it's still relatively niche in terms of volume, especially after factoring in fast food and Sysco restaurants.


If that's the case why can other countries like the UK feed cattle on primarily grass? Admitidely the population is lower, but so is the amount of grazing land as I understand.


You might want to prefer population density over population as a metric: the population density of the UK is _much_ higher than that of the US. IIRC, this is true even east of the Mississippi.

Pasture is probably higher quality in the UK though, owing to the wet climate, which would compensate for there being less pasture.


> If you check the label on the packaged goods you buy, corn is pretty much in all of them in one form or another.

Well yeah: corn grows really well in the American Midwest; it's pretty cool that we're able to make so many products from it (kinda like the work George Washington Carver did with peanuts, which grow very well in the South).


It's also an efficient crop as it uses the C4 pathway, and as you've said can be reprocessed infinite ways, even as gas as you see here. Great for an industrialized market economy.


Not to mention the greenhouse footprint of cattle farming. You can't really feed more people -- at least in the US -- because we already consume food in quantities that are arguably toxic. But you could turn the corn fields over to other kinds of crops.

Disclaimer: I eat meat, maybe 1/4 to 1/2 pound a week.


It's hard to say what the footprint of cattle farming really is. Each side ( and oh boy are there sides ) cherry picks their own figures.

I know that in Texas, the biggest reason people let family land that could be used for cow-farming go is taxation - there are Land Trusts that allow you to keep nominal control of the land while agreeing never to use it productively again, to get a tax abatement.

Also, the lyrics to James McMurty's "South Dakota" from the new record are really interesting on this subject.

I mean - we call noodging "eat your vegetables". I like vegetables just fine, but I like meat, too. I doubt the results of any of the analyses since anybody who gets paid to do the work will probably be biased by who pays them.

And the biggest receivers of any sort of subsidy - precious California water included - are veggie farmers. Using acres of Western Kansas for grazing seems pretty low-impact relative to that.


>>It's hard to say what the footprint of cattle farming really is.

It is hard to say for certain, but we can get a pretty good idea based on the inputs required to raise cattle. Water, grain, antibiotics, petroleum based fuels to plant, harvest and transport the grain, petroleum based fertilizers to aid in growing the grain, and herbicides and pesticides to kill unwanted organisms (I'm sure I missed something).

Not to mention a few of the by-products such as manure and chemical run-off, methane emissions, and soil erosion (from conventional agriculture practices).

The above describes a CAFO, which is where the majority of beef comes from. Managed intensive rotational grazing would be my preferred alternative, but there still wouldn't be enough land available to keep up with our consumption.

>>And the biggest receivers of any sort of subsidy - precious California water included - are veggie farmers.

Can you please site some of the sources that you are using to determine that vegetable farmers are receiving more subsidies than any other industry? I assume you meant "the biggest receivers of any sort of Agriculture subsidy", but I still don't think that is right.


But I suspect that, dependent on the land in question, those inputs may vary widely. Nothing that can make you a modern living can be done with no footprint. But I am pretty sure just from examples of relatives and friends that this will definitely vary. Does that scale? Probably not well. But people have been ranching - even dryland ranching - since before fossil fuels were a serious consideration. Ever see the "ranches" towards Laredo in South Texas? My goodness, that is some rough country. Every living thing there is somehow armed or very, very fast.

Here is why I say these things - my piano teacher's father in Northeast Oklahoma was one of the ones who reintroduced bison onto his land. Cattle are different from bison, but not that different. There's a Vast ocean of grass from the Rio Grande well into Canada, and four-legged critters eating it, making food is remarkably efficient.

I can indeed point you to the book "Cadillac Desert" which does a rough sketch, with respect to the Central Valley farmers. This doesn't make them bad people. It just means these things are messy.

We call the noodge "eat your vegetables" because it's a cliche. I eat good vegetables with great gusto these days; my taste has matured. But all things in balance.


Ethanol accounts for a large share of US corn consumption:

http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/521847/cornuse.jpg

http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/crops/corn/background.aspx

The chart is hard to read exact numbers from, there is a table available at the second link. 2008 was the last year that feed accounted for more than 1/2 of corn use (it still accounts for nearly 1/2 today, I'm not trying to be pedantic there, just adding information).

Ethanol is clearly a big enough portion of consumption to be impacting the price of corn used for food, which isn't the same thing as burning edible food, but it's a reason to carefully consider what incentives are created by various government programs.


It's not like we're really short on food.

People worldwide who can't eat, can't eat because they live in something like a failed state. If you can't have enough stability to be on the global finance network, you're left pretty far behind.


Additional craziness, the subsidy means it's cheaper to buy corn than grow it! Thus making mixed agriculture farms rarer.

So instead of using cow slurry to fertilise crops the US uses oil based fertiliser and has millions of gallons of cow slurry in lagoons.


I'm under the impression that the great majority of manure ends up spread on fields or sold to consumers. I guess you aren't saying it is being stored in lagoons forever, where does it go after sitting in a lagoon if it is not used as an amendment?


I've always wondered about this argument in an environment suffering from an obesity epidemic, often blamed on another corn product, high-fructose corn syrup.

Having lived in many different countries, the cost of food in the US is incredibly low. I assume (and have heard) this is mostly a result of subsidies to farmers.

All the while, US exports of 'corn based products', which I assume is also corn, has continued to grow http://www.fas.usda.gov/data/us-exports-corn-based-products-....


I'm hopeful that normalized relations with Cuba will be the end of our crazy corn subsidies. If you want to make ethanol, sugarcane is 7x more energy efficient in producing ethanol compared to corn, and you can produce twice as much ethanol from an acre of sugarcane as an acre of corn[1]. And if you want to sweeten food and beverages, the same energy efficiency applies to cane sugar harvesting: you can get more sugar with less harvesting energy per acre of sugarcane than corn. (Although there's little science supporting cane sugar being healthier than high-fructose corn syrup.)

It seems like the Cuba detente has broken a constituent stalemate in Congress: a small group of Florida sugarcane farmers corner the market on US cane sugar and no one has wanted to normalize relations and import sugarcane from Cuba because of those farmers' political clout, even though our countries' comparative advantage should dictate growing sugarcane in poor, developing Cuba and exporting it for food and ethanol use in the US.[2] There's been a gentlemen's agreement among senators that props up these farm subsidies because no one wants to rock the boat and jeopardize their own state's subsidies, but California is pushing back as our farmers get hammered by drought and Florida now has little to lose for opposing Midwestern farmers' lucrative corn subsidies.

[1] https://biowesleyan.wordpress.com/first-generation-biofuels/...

[2] http://fcir.org/2012/09/09/in-sugar-price-supports-sour-tast...


Very unlikely. The USA sugar policy is older than the corn policy, why would trade with Cuba change that just because it's one of their agricultural products?

Cuba is not even in the top ten cane producers, and more to the point, the USA alone produces over 15 times as much cane as Cuba. Brazil, which has bilateral free trade agreements with the USA, produces well over 400 times as much cane as Cuba.

What leads you to believe that lifting some sanctions against Cuba would do anything to change US sugar policy?


I'd always thought that the Cuban stalemate lasted so long as enough of the refugees from the revolution were alive and active in Florida politics, I hadn't realised there was a subsidy dimension to it as well.


This comment provides so much insight into an issue I know very little about. Just thought an up vote was not enough here. Thank you.


Corn subsidies will end when electric vehicles begin to put a dent in gasoline consumption in the US.


I think corn subsidies have a lot to do with food, and corn-ethanol producers are piggybacking on that subsidy rather than driving it.


Between 1950 and 2000, corn production per acre in the US increased nearly 300%. Population increased 86%.

Subsidies do play a role, however American farm productivity is among the highest of any country and has skyrocketed in the last 50 to 60 years. This is due to technology, organization structure, and a geography favorable to nearly every type of farming. Few countries have all of those things, along with the world's largest consumer and capital markets.

Three million US farmers produce so much food they can feed not only all 320 million Americans, but also export a vast amount of food.


It's not caused by the direct subsidies. Things like ethanol requirements in gas and the HFCS favoritism drive up the cost of the food. Ethanol by increasing demand for corn. The reason America uses corn syrup is because the government has a high tariff on cane sugar imports.

So America pays twice the global rate for sugar.


This is an important point, American farm output is strongly manipulated by other subsidies and regulations. But I don't think there's any reason to believe that rising domestic corn prices would not have an effect on the larger domestic and foreign food markets, or that the effect would be good.


Not to mention that it's essentially impossible to find non-ethanol fuel nearby to put in my motorcycle. It's not exactly the best thing for carbureted engines. I understand that I'm in the minority and I wouldn't expect an otherwise sensible policy to change on behalf of people who commute on motorcycles and scooters but I wouldn't complain if it became easier to avoid.


I'm not a car expert but I remember hearing somewhere that it depends on how the engine is manufactured. Here in Brazil the car engines are engineered to withstand high alcohol contents and there are even cars with "flex-fuel" technology that can handle any mixture from 100% gasoline to 100% ethanol.


"there are even cars with 'flex-fuel'" is an understatement. They were 90% of small car sales and 23% of total circulating vehicles as of 2008, probably more now.

Reference in Portuguese: http://www1.folha.uol.com.br/mercado/2008/07/428265-veiculos...


For some odd reason the manufacturer of my lawn mower warns me not to use more than 10% Ethanol content fuel, or else my warranty is void. I'll assume it was to save about a dollar or two on gaskets and o-rings.


My lawnmower sat unused for about 4 years in a shed. Last year I tried to use it and gas leaked all around it. The ethanol left in the tank had eaten out all the little plastic pieces and seals in the ignition system.


Flex Fuel Vehicles are a thing in the United States too; but only up to 85% ethanol. One of my vehicles will run on E85, but since it would cost more and is not as available as regular gasoline, there is no real reason to use it.


Do people actually use it? Is there ever a reason to use it? It costs 5% less but is 25% less efficient.


Custom tuned turbos (eg. Evo and STi's) can get tremendous output on E85; that's the only use I've seen of it.


It's cheap race gas at about 105 octane. I had my previous car tuned for it. The only problem is that it is very inconsistent at the pump. You don't always get e85. Some times it's e80 other times it's e75. The blend is also dependent on the weather. In cold weather states you only get about 3 months of true e85, in the winter the pump has a blend of e60. For a regular commuter car it's not a big deal and is necessary to ensure it starts properly in cold weather but when talking about cars that need a specific stoich ratio it's critical. Best way around it is to buy a barrel of it lol.


Not good for plastic gas tanks either.


Since ethanol has been a part of fuel for many decades, the vast majority of auto parts today are fine with ethanol. There are exceptions, like the Ducati gas tanks, but by and large ethanol is not a problem in any fuel-injected vehicle.


Triumph has had the same problem with their plastic tanks and have somehow managed to avoid a recall like Ducati did. It doesn't help that European vehicles aren't designed to account for an alien fuel.


As the owner of 3 ducatis, a snow blower, and a generator... when ethanol gas sits around for a while it does awful awful things:( Fuel stabilizers help a little, but the only way to REALLY make things work is to either run the engines at LEAST once a week all year, or to fully drain everything, and then deal with another sort of hassle when you need the generator running immediately..

While my car runs the ethenolized gas okay, it kills me knowing that I'm losing HP/efficiency just due to corn subsidies:(


Using ethanol as an oxidizer instead of MTBE looks like pretty much a no brainer. I guess the blend is being maxed out instead of just using the appropriate amount needed for emissions control, but the use of ethanol doesn't just come down to subsidies.


There are uses for (some) ethanol in gasoline. It boosts octane and decreases CO production (smog) by increasing fuel oxygenation, for starters.

Oxygenated fuel is fuel with extra oxygen that is released during combustion. Nitromethane is an especially dramatic example:

The oxygen content of nitromethane enables it to burn with much less atmospheric oxygen... The amount of air required to burn 1 kg (2.2 lb) of gasoline is 14.7 kg (32 lb), but only 1.7 kg (3.7 lb) of air is required for 1 kg of nitromethane


How much petroleum is used to produce ethanol, from seed to harvest to processing?

The answer seems to vary depending on which side of the ethanol/no-ethanol fence you ask. It's hard to find real numbers.



That's the term I've been looking for. Thanks.


> It's a good idea to avoid ethanol gas, on principle if for no other reason. Processing edible food to burn in your car (with all the implied market consequences) is kinda crazy.

OTOH, ten years ago, the prices for farm products were so low that farmers in countries with no farm subsidies could not make ends meet. The biofuel industry has at least had the benefit of making the lot of farmers in such countries - who by the way were among the poorest people in these countries - a bit less dismal.


Are there more poor people in the world who are farmers who benefit from this, or are there more poor people who purchase food who will suffer or starve?


Hunger has never been a problem of production in particular but of distribution. For decades, there's been plenty of food for everyone on this planet; it just hasn't been distributed, by politics or by markets, evenly and probably won't be in any time soon.

It doesn't necessarily mean growing vegetation to produce ethanol fuel is a good thing but not doing so wouldn't make things effectively better either. On the other hand, at least the process is renewable unlike fossil fuels. On the other hand, it would make sense to grow this biofuel only in places where the environment is optimal for the most aggressively ethanol-producing plants.

The bigger problem is the demand for fuel. You could build cities where you don't need millions of people to consume fuel in order to merely get by their ordinary days moving between work, shopping groceries, and home. Unfortunately, those cities don't seem to be built until fuel prices get high enough that it's cheaper to abandon suburbia and rebuild the city based on walking and public transit.


> Hunger has never been a problem of production in particular but of distribution.

The price of food is not about hunger. There are people who literally have no food because the place they live has no infrastructure to transport food; that's what causes hunger.

But there are still billions of people in poverty who live in urban areas. Those people don't go hungry, because food is available for sale and food is what a hungry man buys with his first dollar. But that doesn't mean the price of food doesn't affect them -- it makes all the difference in the world to them. Because if not only the first dollar but the second and third dollars have to go to buying food then they will, but that means they can't go to obtaining shelter or medicine or education.


That sounds like an argument for rolling back the farm subsidies, not adding more laws to balance them out.


In Brazil, the amount of mandatory ethanol in gas was raised to 27%, to stimulate ethanol producers.


Brazil uses sugar cane, so the process is more efficient than in the US


What about the environmental impact comparting to the US method?


It is drastic. My sister worked in one of the farms...

The crop is not good? It went spoiled?

Well light this matches and watch it burn.. yes literally

The cities nearby suffer a lot with respiratory problems specially kids.

But you will not see that on News the companies pay a lot to "promote" their eco images


They actually burn it to avoid harm to the workers and use its ash to fertilize their land. However, mechanization has reduced the need to burn fields and pollution has gradually been decreased.


It has similar issues, such as using fertilizers and water usage. At the same time, one of the main issues is deforestation in the Amazon and field burning before harvest.

Still, it probably still makes sense to use it. For example, its energy balance(ethanol/energy for its production) is ~8-10 whereas in the US is ~1-2.


If the rumors are true, that mix could also eat through an otherwise reasonably efficient four-cylinder in record time, which would be a shame.


Not to mention motorcycles...yeesh.


> It's a good idea to avoid ethanol gas, on principle if for no other reason.

Then why on earth is the Australian government making us put this shit in our cars unless we want to buy 100% premium fuel.


Only the sugar cane growing states and the politicians bought by the cane sugar industry. You can buy fuel with ethanol in the other states at shitty "discount" outlets but many people avoid it. The major outlets generally don't sell it. It has lower energy density so you aren't getting better value, and while every modern car here is designed to run it in theory hardly any manufacturers recommend it.


Mate, many of our servos sell straight 91 RON fuel. Check your local Caltex, United or 7-Eleven.

http://forums.whirlpool.net.au/archive/2224794


I blame it on the people voting for the Australian governments.


Further reading for the interested:

- "All studies indicated that current corn ethanol technologies are much less petroleum-intensive than gasoline but have greenhouse gas emissions similar to those of gasoline. However, many important environmental effects of biofuel production are poorly understood. New metrics that measure specific resource inputs are developed, but further research into environmental metrics is needed. Nonetheless, it is already clear that large-scale use of ethanol for fuel will almost certainly require cellulosic technology. " http://www.sciencemag.org/content/311/5760/506

- "[Prior] analyses have failed to count the carbon emissions that occur as farmers worldwide respond to higher prices and convert forest and grassland to new cropland to replace the grain (or cropland) diverted to biofuels. By using a worldwide agricultural model to estimate emissions from land-use change, we found that corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20% savings, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years. " http://www.whrc.org/resources/publications/pdf/Searchingeret...

This second citation is key. Most of my friends who aren't studying this stuff all the time aren't aware of the critical role land use changes (e.g. deforestation) plays in global carbon emissions, and biofuel's perturbation of international food markets tends to accelerate these deleterious trends.


It looks like there's a company, prottero that makes sucrose by bacterias,using a special bioreactor, at less than half the cost, much smaller area and probably much less environmental harm. So it might be that ethanol will be green, or at least greener.

http://www.proterro.com/

Another nice benefit is that sugar is a very useful input in many bio manufacturing industries.And many of those products are much more controlled than what nature offers(like healthy dairy fats for the food industry by solazyme), so if available at the right price, they could be quite important, and low cost sugar could be helpful here.


Thank you for making all the citations! I made my post (with similar subject, but without citations) before I saw yours.


This article directly contradicts my understanding of some key points. For example, does the production of corn ethanol really increase food prices? I was under the impression that the US overproduces so much corn that the farmers were specifically getting tax credits to produce less of it.

Also, is growing and harvesting this corn (taking out the final burning of ethanol out of it for a moment) a net positive or negative in terms of carbon emissions? Is the fact that the corn is growing and absorbing carbon dioxide enough to offset the planting, fertilization, and harvesting? What about all that + conversion to ethanol + disposal of the conversion byproducts?

The real question is this: what is greater?

(a) CO2 emissions from planting, harvesting, transporting, converting, disposing of corn + CO2 emissions from burning the ethanol + CO2 and other emissions from having to recycle/downcycle/dispose of engines that die earlier because ethanol is bad for them.

or (b) CO2 emissions from drilling/fracking for oil, transport, refining, disposal of byproducts + CO2 emissions from burning gasoline.

If I accounted for all the factors, the questions of whether a > b or b > a should determine the policy.

There is of course a (c) CO2 emissions from mining and transporting coal/oil/natural gas to the power plant * loss factor for transporting the electricity + losses in charging systems + CO2 and other emissions from mining and processing lithium and manufacturing, transport, and recycling of lithium ion batteries.


> does the production of corn ethanol really increase food prices?

It might be hard to determine. But here's an anecdote, the price of short ribs has dramatically gone up. My wife is Korean, so short ribs (galbi) are a favorite dish. We used to be able to buy several pounds of ribs, a huge pile of them, for $20-30. They were so cheap, and there were so many of them, and the way they were packaged was in such large packages, that it would take us several meals to get through them. It used to be a regular thing for us to go get some ribs, grab a few friends and spend a lazy afternoon in the park cooking Korean bbq and we'd all go home stuffed. We used to even buy it when we were much less well off it was such a cheap and satisfying meal.

Only a decade later, $30-40 buys you enough for a couple people, if we eat a side of rice and other food with it.

As a result, galbi has turned into a rare treat, despite us being much better-off financially, it's so expensive compared other foods that it's just not worth it anymore. Even restaurants we frequent will have a menu of $10-12 meals and then galbi (1 person's service) will be something like $18-20.

My understanding is that over 90% of cows are fed mostly with corn feed, so if corn goes up, the price of cows go up.

We're also starting to see some minor kickback against HFCS. The story is that it's bad for health, but my personal theory is that companies are trying to rework supply chains around other sugar sources in the event corn subsidies disappear. "Mexican Coke" and "Throwback Pepsi" are regulars at my local stores. Sold at a slightly higher price than the HFCS varieties.

I haven't read this yet, but it appears to look at some of these relationships. http://www.card.iastate.edu/policy_briefs/display.aspx?id=11...


Beef prices have gone up a LOT in recent years, but ethanol-related corn price increases is only a part of the reason.

Slightly increased domestic demand due to economic recovery, as well as very large increases in foreign demand due to economic development, combined with the fact that supply was trimmed back during the recession, are also big parts of the equation.


I had read a couple years ago that drought was making feed prohibitively expensive, leading to a culling of stock which lowered prices temporarily, and now we are in for an extended run of higher priced beef.

E.g http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2012-08-21/peter-luge...


The supply was semi-decimated because of drought. The price rises are better correlated with drought than recovery.


Here's a chart of beef prices over the last 10 years:

http://www.indexmundi.com/commodities/?commodity=beef&months...


From the perspective of global warming, all that matters is the net contribution of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels to the atmosphere.

The reason oil companies object to the Renewable Fuel Standard is that it results in lower net usage of oil. If it resulted in higher net oil usage, they wouldn't oppose it. So that answers your question.


No, that isn't all that matters. I outlined the other factors that matter in my original comment. Wouldn't you agree that fracking also contributes to global warming? Or that fermenting corn does? What matters is the net total. If all that mattered was CO2 from oil, it would be an easy problem: get rid of oil, use ethanol. Thing is CO2 is the same, whether it comes from oil, ethanol, coal burning power plants, or cow manure. What matters is the net emissions.


Correct me if I'm wrong, but if for example we only used pure ethanol as fuel, carbon would still be emitted, but it would also be offset by the carbon absorbed by growing the next round of fuel crops. It seems like such a situation would be either carbon-neutral or close to it.

Especially if we develop (through GMOs or ordinary selective breeding) crops specifically for fuel purposes to make the whole process more efficient.


That's not correct. In a pure-ethanol economy, the total emissions will be CO2 from:

- Deforestation for the creation of corn fields. This includes the process of cutting down trees (gas powered machines, transport, etc.) and loss of trees that will no longer produce O2/absorb CO2

- Planting

- Fertilizers. This one is huge as creation of fertilizers is nasty business and fairly energy intensive.

- Harvesting

- Transport

- Fermentation

- Disposal of byproducts

- Transport again to the pump

- Combustion

- Other effects, such as having to manufacture more engines as they would wear out quicker and recycling of more worn out engines.

This would partially offset by the fact that the corn is absorbing CO2.

As I mentioned above (twice), fossil fuels have similarly complex sources of emissions (drilling/fracking, transport, refining, transport again, combustion).

The question to answer is this: if you sum up the totals for both methods, which is more efficient. I guarantee you, both still will produce net positive CO2 emissions. The only question is which will produce less net CO2 from all the sources.

Lastly, I should mention that theoretically, there is also a benefit of reducing other nasty emissions from fossil fuels such as sulfur. We could probably produce cleaner ethanol than gasoline. But none of that will matter if we spew so much CO2 into the air that we suffocate before we can measure these secondary pollutants properly.


I'm still kind of confused on this. In all the examples of energy expenditure, we assume that the energy comes from ethanol in the first place. The plants aren't magically creating more carbon, so if you grow the same amount as you burn, that carbon should be absorbed back.

That leaves deforestation for planting, which is a problem since human energy use isn't the only source of CO2. But if deforestation is avoided (this is where GMO crops would come in, grow more fuel in a given amount of space) or we implement other methods of CO2 sequestration (impractical now, but perhaps not in the future) we could still minimize that risk.


If we got rid of oil and used ethanol for everything, we would indeed solve global warming because we would be fixing as much carbon as we release every year.

Edit: Not totally solve of course because that doesn't do anything about coal and natural gas emissions.


There is no "oil company" that is purely interested in maintaining oil demand. It's all services except for the actual leaseholders. There may be consortia that are interested, but they are of limited ability to influence policy.

Post-2008, demand for oil has dropped without recovering, yet the cash flows of oil firms have remained strong ( it remains to be seen what comes of the big price drop ).


It's not quite as simple. Oil companies are interested in making money, not in your burning oil. If they could make more money with your burning less oil (eg by raising oil prices high enough without damaging demand too much), they'd go for it.

In this case, the conclusion might still hold. But the proper argument has one more step.


You're right but that's not the effect that the RFS has. Ethanol directly supplants oil, without affecting total supply or demand for liquid fuel, so it does not allow oil companies to raise their price per volume. Again: that's why they oppose it.


Actually, it's even worse: if people are forced to consume ethanol with their oil, and ethanol makes the combination a worse product, then demand for oil will drop further than the displacement alone.


Vaguely unrelated, but petroleum politics, especially between the US And Europe are weird. I've got a diesel VW, I get roughly 40MPG, and my car has 3 catalytic converters in it. I live in California.

Last year, my wife and I rented a diesel 7 series while in Europe (a minor upgrade to the car we had reserved). 70% of our driving was non-Autobahn, but still a lot in the 120kph range, with some traffic. 30% Autobahn, having fun. A larger car, a larger engine, comparable mix of driving to what I do at home, yet still roughly got 37MPH. Smaller diesel cars, we've started way north of what I get in my Jetta for even faster driving.

Europe seems to have cleaner diesel (and air) yet fewer contraptions in their cars (compared to CA) and comparable or even larger cars there meet or exceed lesser cars here.


The EU generally does not have cleaner air than the US, despite more stringent regulations. Population density is a major factor.

Diesel regulations are roughly equal (Europe got there earlier though): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultra-low-sulfur_diesel


Europe also seems to have less driving than California on account of actually having transit.


End subsidized food burning:

> Corn is the top crop for subsidy payments. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 mandates that billions of gallons of ethanol be blended into vehicle fuel each year, guaranteeing demand, but US corn ethanol subsidies are between $5.5 billion and $7.3 billion per year.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agricultural_subsidy#United_Sta...


Does anyone know what the relative cost of MTBE is vs. ethanol? One of the reasons ethanol is added to gasoline is to increase the octane rating. We used to use MTBE instead. I'm curious if the argument against ethanol continues to bear out when considering alternative octane boosters.


Depends on how you define cost. MTBE infiltrates groundwater very easily, and cleaning up contaminated sites is ridiculously expensive.


Well, MTBE was phased out because of groundwater contamination. If you include cleanup costs, I doubt it would be cheaper than ethanol.


This characterizes MTBE production costs:

http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/steo/special/pdf/mtbecost.pdf

It uses oil and natural gas feedstocks, so goes up and down with them. I guess it is somewhat cheaper to produce than ethanol, something like 1/2 the cost when the various input costs make the comparison the worst, and similar at other times (this is just a ballpark guess, not based on any careful analysis).


The whole ethanol story is a weird one. In the EU ethanol was (and still is) promoted as "environment friendly".

Facts are against it. There are plenty of studies, that ethanol is doing more harm to environment than it helps. The reason is, that conventional thinking that "corn growing reduces CO2" is just to simple. You must take into account all factors and also damages that are made by the ethanol production. And it is a fact, that rain forests and other natural plants are displaced by corn farms for ethanol. So conventional thinking "great we have more plants and CO2 is reduced" is just plainly wrong. This thinking was misguiding and misused by the ethanol lobbies.

It would be better to stay on normal gasoline and at the same time reduce the gasoline usage of cars and factories in mid-term. In long term, we should go for better energy sources (preferably solar and wind energy).

So, the environment is no valid reason for the ethanol promotion. What is the only (valid) reason to do so?: To get less dependent from the oil-countries. (so politics again)

But the best way would be to get rid of this environment-costly energy source for real environment-friendly ones.


Ethanol is "environment friendly" when compared to gasoline, the latter having no good environmental aspects making it a bit of a low standard to beat.

The fact that rain forests are destroyed for corn plantations is probably independent of ethanol consumption, the ethanol driven investment mostly just increasing the existing rate at which deforestation happens. Corn is not only used for ethanol after all.


We can argue right and left here. Fact is, that there are multiple studies (somebody also cited some here) come to the result that ethanol when every effect is taken into account is worse than mineral oil for the environment -- and who says different, is most likely paid by the ethanol lobbies.

And to your "rain forests are destroyed anyway"-argument: You argue without any proof just by guessing. (BTW: rain forests where only one example, in fact, I don't know what areas are destroyed by fuel plants, but fact is, that there are areas destroyed and they are mono-cultures that grossly harm nature).


Plus, ethanol is bad in cold weather climates. As I understand it, it can phase separate and put a bunch of water in your tank (basically).


I live far below the Mason-Dixon line and I can't comment on ethanol in colder climates but I can tell you that I treat any ethanol gasoline for my small single cylinder engines in the can when I fill it up since we have such high humidity in the South in the summer and the ethanol will increase the moisture content in the fuel.


This is true but actually not as much of a problem as self interested make it out to be.

Other than the propaganda reason (i.e., to make people think "85" is the octane) the reason that it is called E85 is that it is only 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline. Ethanol by itself it not volatile enough to start an engine in cold climates so they spike it with gasoline.

Also you're correct it can phase separate but you could just as easily blame the gasoline for that problem as the ethanol... and if you tend to drive your gas tank down to near empty it reduces the problem even further.


The opposite: ethanol serves as a gas-line antifreeze.


Ethanol most certainly causes fuel to capture and retain more moisture.

Not sure about any antifreeze properties but on the whole it's not good for small carbureted engines.


It's sort of both.

Ethanol does absorb water from the air.

But that's how it works as a gas-line antifreeze: It absorbs undesired water from the fuel line and mixes with it so that you can burn it.


Ethonal free gasoline doesn't freeze easily either so that isn't relevant.


The ethanol absorbs any water and stops it from separating out. If the water separates out it can freeze in the fuel line and cause a blockage.

In my part of Canada people were actually somewhat happy when the 10% ethanol showed up as it meant that you didn't have to add any fuel line antifreeze over the winter.


Congress only passes about 200 bills per year and declining.

This kickback is never going to end and if it got close, someone would just put an anonymous hold on the bill until it died.

But if you want to waste taxpayer money by renaming post offices after dead presidents, they are all for that.


Sounds like the perfect tax: driving is discouraged, cash flows to production instead of the government and it's (slightly) environmentally-friendly.

And if we're getting into the details, how do we allocate the trillions of dollars spent on the Middle East?


Why is cash flowing to people who can afford lawyers a good thing?


I think in general cash flowing to people/businesess who are working for it is better than it going to the government. In this case, the "subsidy" is exactly proportional to work performed.


If you agree at all on having a government, then it needs some funding. And now, why should the government touch and move around more flows of money than are strictly necessary to fund it?

More money touched and redirected just leads to more corruption and rent-seeking.

If you want the government to have less money, let's just reduce eg the `sin tax on honest work' aka the income tax.


The corn ethanol rip off is kind of ridiculous. I still have hopes though that algae produced ethanol may be cost effective. There's a company called Algenol that's been trying for a while with genetically modified algae and projecting cheaper than oil ethanol next year for quite a few years now but you never know - they may get there one day.

( http://www.biofuelsdigest.com/bdigest/2015/01/26/worlds-larg... for example of their stuff)


A chemist told me that ethanol is actually cheaper to produce directly from petroleum, than via corn. I'm not sure he meant oil or natural gas. The ethanol subsidies are strictly for corn based.


I've heard that ethanol production actually uses more fuel than it produces, so you'd be better off just not producing it and using the fuel directly.

On the other hand, it allows oil companies to pretend they're doing something about climate change (without changing any of their infrastructure) and it gives farmers more money, so you'd have to take on the oil lobby AND the farming lobby to get rid of it.


The "uses more fuel than it produces" argument is a bit of a red herring. Gasoline also "uses more fuel than it produces", because it takes a substantial amount of fuel to bring one gallon of gas out of the ground, refine it, and truck it out to the pump.


Can you expand on this claim? I figure there is some word play here around 'gasoline' and 'fuel' definitions, otherwise logic dictates this doesn't meet basic logic. E.g. diesel isn't included in gasoline but is in fuel used to power trucks/machines etc. I'm curious if this is an interesting fact, or wordplay to make something sound interesting.


The best way to explain it is by analogy.

Diesel engines originally were developed to burn peanut oil. So lets run the peanut farm on locally grown peanut oil.

Lets say the tractors and trucks take 100 barrels of peanut oil per year to run. Oh fertilizers and poisons and all that petroleum derived stuff take oil too, but whatever, we'll imagine the total energy cost of running a farm is 100 barrel equivalent of peanut oil. Sure some of the 100 barrels equivalent is the UPS dude pumping diesel into his brown truck to drive out and drop off your herbicide or seed or whatever. And the power plant is shoveling some energy in the form of coal to make the electricity to run the irrigation pumps. Still, ignore the details and stick with me on the big pix, "doing farmin for a year" takes 100 barrels of energy.

If your farm averages 101 or more barrels of peanut oil production, you win, and get to sell at least 1 barrel a year (or more) for profit, or more likely debt service and taxes, whatever. At least next year on average you'll have a stockpile of 100 barrels needed to run the farm next year. You have a magic perpetual motion machine that turns sunlight into a trickle of peanut oil as long as the soil doesn't wash away and the sun keeps on shining. Cool.

If your farm averages 99 or fewer barrels of peanut oil production per year, then aside from massive government intervention you'll never get to sell any peanut oil on the open market, and even worse, you'll have to buy at least 1 barrel per year of crude oil to continue to operate your farm. This farm eats oil well pumped crude oil and outputs, well, nothing at all, at least without massive central government control and regulation and subsidy, like having the .gov take my money at gunpoint to give you 50 barrels of crude oil in exchange for votes so you can sell 40 barrels of peanut oil to greenwash the market.

Guess which scenario describes actual ethanol operations? We would net conserve crude petroleum if we shut down ethanol production today. This would eliminate uncountable government provided socialized jobs, so you can guess the likelihood of that ever happening.


We would net conserve crude petroleum if we shut down ethanol production today.

Correct, this is the real question, whose answer is debated and depends severely on the production mechanism.


That doesn't make any sense.


It's a confusion of the concepts "Expenses" "Profits" and "Revenue"

say you have 100 barrels of revenue, but you must expend 60 barrels to get the 100 barrels, then you have 40 barrels of profit.

you consume more barrels than you produce. See?


As someone who runs E85 because it's essentially race gas for about $1.25 a gallon, I'm conflicted.


E85 is SO far from "essentially race gas". It has much LOWER energy density than non-ethanol gas.

It takes 1.39 gallons of E85 to have the same energy as 1 gallon of conventional dino juice.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gasoline_gallon_equivalent

The only way to get more power with E85 is to have some sort of extreme engine running INSANE amounts of turbo boost, like the Koenesegg CCXR. In a normal street car any level of octane high enough to keep the engine from pre-detonating is more than sufficient - there is no boost in power.


"Race gas" is commonly understood to refer to octane number. E85 is 94-96 octane, according to wikipedia, which enables you to run higher compression or higher boost.

The fact that it has lower energy density just means you burn more of it, so your tank runs out faster. It has nothing to do with the power you can get out of the engine.


If E85 has ~40% less energy in it per volume/weight, then you'd need to be pushing ~40% MORE fuel in the same timeframe to break even on power, right? So you'd need the octane jump from 91/93 to to 94-96 to allow you to run enough extra boost to burn 40% more fuel per cycle. Assuming your turbo/supercharger can deliver 40% more pressure without a big drop in efficiency. And you need your fuel injectors and fuel pump to be able to push 40% more than previous peak numbers. Just to break even. Right? I don't see a 1-5 octane jump buying you enough extra boost to even break even... Maybe with aftermarket turbos, FP, injectors, etc...?

I've done a lot of work with turbo charged cars, but I'm not an expert, so i could be wrong here... I'd rather just buy real race gas or mix toluene than mess with E85...


You don't add 40% more fuel/air mixture, you make the mixture 40% richer. Fuel is such a small part of the fuel/air mixture that 40% more fuel volume has virtually no effect on the compression stroke.

Timing out the injectors is an issue if they are marginally sized, and the ECU can throw a fit because it thinks the injector timing can't possibly be as off as the lambda sensor tells it.

On my old VW Passat, you could program an offset into the ECU to account for the latter problem. I test-ran it on up to about E85 without any other changes, and got noticeably less knock retard until the injector time saturated somewhere around E60.


It generally requires an upgrade to the fuel system, yes. There's been a lot of discussion of this in the tuner community, but the very short version is that it works and works well if making power is your goal.

There's a good primer here: http://www.iwsti.com/forums/3016597-post3.html

tl;dr - E85 does have lower energy per unit of volume than pump gas, but the significantly higher octane rating and evaporative cooling effect of ethanol mean higher boost and compression levels, more than making up for the difference.


E85 tunes are common (and the numbers amazing) on various turbo car forms - cars like the Evo generally have a rich aftermarket that can handle such a setup. Fuel economy is the last thing on their mind....


Here's the first dyno chart I could come across. 93 octane vs E85 in a supercharged Audi S4. (+27whp +31wtq) (They did say they had to use a higher-flowing fuel pump to handle the increased fuel usage.)

http://solomotorsportsnet@solomotorsports.net/images/B8%20ST...

Other cars get even greater gains when tuned for ethanol.


Running 8psi and high compression I go from 260hp at the wheels to over 300. 20mpg 93 octane vs 18 on e85.


Which gets you what exactly? You can do racy things with an engine running on 87 octane with the two wheeled varieties more than capable of satisfying any speed lust.


Every performance sports bike I've owned (capable of 15K rpms) requires high octane fuel because of the compression they run at (~11:1). 87 octane fuel in a race engine?? No. No. No.


Not to mention that ethanol means using food supplies - which, you know, a lot of people could use. (world hunger still being a problem)


I'm surprised no one has commented on the amount of fresh water we use to produce ethanol, particularly ethanol derived from corn.

Water is needed to grow the corn and also in processing it.

"The amount of water it takes to produce ethanol varies according to how much irrigation is needed for the corn, particularly since row crop agriculture for corn is the most water consuming stage of ethanol production. In Ohio, because of sufficient rainfall, only 1% of the corn is irrigated while in Nebraska 72% of the crop is irrigated. It takes 19 gallons of water to produce a bushel of corn in Region 5, 38 gallons in Region 6, and 865 gallons in Region 7. The Baker Institute estimates that producing the corn to meet the ethanol mandate for 2015 will require 2.9 trillion gallons of water.

Most of this irrigation water is drawn from groundwater aquifers in a region that is already water stressed. Conflicts over water allotments have occurred in Kansas and Nebraska, and the Ogallala Aquifer, which lies under the Great Plains and supplies 30% of the nation’s groundwater for irrigation, is in danger of running dry.

Growing corn also requires a great deal of fertilizer, and extensive use of nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides is having severe impacts on water quality now. Fertilizer laden runoff into streams in the Midwest makes its way to the Mississippi River, and eventually contributes to the eutrophication (when algae bloom, then die, depleting the area of oxygen and suffocating plants and animals) in the Gulf of Mexico. In 2010, this dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico was estimated to be almost 8000 square miles and it continues to grow. 2.39 million additional tons of nitrogen fertilizer will be needed to meet the 2015 mandate.

Easily erodible and less productive land set aside by the conservation reserve program, that paid farmers to retire inferior land, is now being pressed back into service due to the lure of high corn prices. This land will likely need additional fertilizer and irrigation to be productive, which will result in more polluted runoff and water consumption.

Although biofuels are promoted because they are said to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, some scientists argue that when the life cycle of ethanol production is compared to that of conventional gasoline, there may be no reduction in greenhouse gas emissions at all. More corn is being planted on more land fertilized with nitrogen, resulting in additional air and water pollution from nitrous oxide, a chemical 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

Processing corn to make ethanol requires substantial amounts of water for the grinding, liquefaction, fermentation, separation and drying procedures. Over the last ten years, however, some of the nation’s 200 biorefineries have been able to reduce water use from 6.8 gallons of water per gallon of ethanol to 3 gallons by boosting the efficiency of their equipment. South Dakota based Poet,the world’s largest ethanol producer is aiming to cut its overall water intake by 22% by 2014, and use only 2.33 gallons of water per gallon of ethanol produced. This would reduce its annual water use by 1 billion gallons."

http://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2011/03/21/ethanol%E2%80%99s-im...


The food vs. fuel argument is total propaganda anyhow. As mentioned above, most US corn is used for cattle feed ... and incidentally is only DIVERTED for ethanol production. Even if it wasn't, over 90% of the corn produced in the US is GMO corn that is probably unfit for human consumption anyhow (I suspect GMOs are the tobacco of the 21st century, but only time will tell).

The by-product of large-scale ethanol production is large amounts of dried distillers grains (DDGS). The starch that is consumed during distillation is not nutritional for the cows anyhow, and the DDGS are sold as a HIGH QUALITY feed (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Distillers_grains).

That said, large scale ethanol production is not the best way to produce fuel, especially when it could be quite easily distilled on site where it is harvested to greatly decrease the energy input for producing the fuel. It is not a coincidence that many large ethanol plants are owned by oil companies... this would be like Microsoft buying Red Hat, adding dependencies on ActiveX to the kernel, and then claiming that their studies show that Linux is total shit.

Also, whether or not you have a law, they'll still add ethanol to the gas to increase the octane and act as an oxygenator, so I agree that tax subsidies and mandates need to end... also wars, political corruption, the income tax, and mass surveillance, but you have to start somewhere I guess.




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