Popular Mechanics: Ethanol Bill Bad News

  • Published on December 20th, 2007 by
 

President450

Congress and the president have spoken: ethanol is America’s new renewable fuel.

Yesterday, President Bush signed into law energy bill H.R.6, which establishes a new renewable fuel standard in the United States (see Max’s earlier post). But not everyone is applauding Capitol Hill. James B. Meigs, editor-in-chief of Popular Mechanics, has railed against ethanol in an op-ed to be published in the magazine’s February 2008 issue. As Meigs points out, Washington is looking for quick fixes, not long-term solutions:

It’s great that our politicians have discovered the need for new energy technologies. But it appears that Washington is determined to put its money—our money—on the wrong horse. Right now, researchers are studying a host of energy solutions, including hydrogen, high-mileage diesel, plug-in hybrids, radical reductions in vehicle weight and cellulosic ethanol (made from cornstalks, switchgrass or other nonfood crops). It is far too soon to say which of these holds the most promise. But, instead of promoting experimentation and competition to find the best solutions, politicians seem ready to declare ethanol the winner. As a result, our nation could wind up with the worst of both worlds: an “alternative” energy that is enormously expensive yet barely saves a gallon of oil.





James makes an excellent point: Washington should not be mandating specific renewable technologies but offering incentives that promote intelligent and innovative research. The new renewable energy standard is actually the most extensive ethanol mandate to date, requiring 15 billion gallons of ethanol be produced per year by 2015—three times todays output.

That’s a lot of corn, which isn’t exactly Mother Nature’s most resource efficient crop. Corn returns about 1.25 units of energy for every 1 unit of input. Imagine putting $1 on the roulette table and getting back $1.25. Worth the risk? Not really. And since these energy inputs usually take the form of diesel fuel and petroleum-based fertilizers, producing corn-ethanol is hardly kicking the oil habit.

So why does Washington still support corn-based ethanol? James has one answer:

There’s a simple reason that ethanol is popular with politicians: money. Substituting corn ethanol for a large fraction of the gasoline we burn will mean sluicing gushers of cash from more populated states to politically powerful farm states. And a lot of that cash will wind up in the pockets of the big agribusinesses, like Archer Daniels Midland, that dominate ethanol processing—and whose fat checkbooks wield enormous influence in Washington.

On the flip side, the new standards require that by 2022 an additional 21 billion gallons of renewable fuel be produced from conventional and advanced biofuels, including biodiesel, cellulosic ethanol, butanol, and biogas. They also raise CAFE standards to an average of 35 mpg by 2020.

These are important steps, but James’ argument still holds water. The U.S. doesn’t need massive increases in corn-based ethanol production. What it needs is intelligent, incentive-based development of renewable energy sources. Let’s do it right the first time.

Popular Mechanics (Feb. 2008): The Ethanol Fallacy: Op-Ed

GreenCarCongress (Dec. 18 2008): House Sends Energy Bill to President Bush; New Renewable Fuel Standard

Photo Credit





About the Author

In a past life, Clayton was a professional blogger and editor of Gas 2.0, Important Media’s blog covering the future of sustainable transportation. He was also the Managing Editor for GO Media, the predecessor to Important Media.

  • Phil

    Agreed, but as you state, legislators are going to create bills that get money to their constituents and make them look good. Unfortunately, Nightly News isn’t going to point all this out, so it’s going to seem to a lot of people who aren’t looking around (at blogs like yours) that the bill is saving the economic and environmental future for generations to come….which we know is BS.

    Thanks

  • Phil

    Agreed, but as you state, legislators are going to create bills that get money to their constituents and make them look good. Unfortunately, Nightly News isn’t going to point all this out, so it’s going to seem to a lot of people who aren’t looking around (at blogs like yours) that the bill is saving the economic and environmental future for generations to come….which we know is BS.

    Thanks

  • fthefarmer

    UNFORTUNATELY WHEN POLITICIANS OPPOSE ETHANOL THEY LOSE THEIR JOBS; WITNESS GRAY DAVIS FORMER GOVENOR OF CALIFORNIA. WHEN GOVENOR DAVIS REESISTED ETHANOL THE PRESIDENT AND LOBBYISTS FOUND MTBE IN THE GROUND WATER (ONLY STATE TO EVER SEE THIS). WHEN HE STILL DIDN’T EMBRACE ETHANOL THEY (LOBBYISTS) FUNDED A RECALL VOTE.

  • fthefarmer

    UNFORTUNATELY WHEN POLITICIANS OPPOSE ETHANOL THEY LOSE THEIR JOBS; WITNESS GRAY DAVIS FORMER GOVENOR OF CALIFORNIA. WHEN GOVENOR DAVIS REESISTED ETHANOL THE PRESIDENT AND LOBBYISTS FOUND MTBE IN THE GROUND WATER (ONLY STATE TO EVER SEE THIS). WHEN HE STILL DIDN’T EMBRACE ETHANOL THEY (LOBBYISTS) FUNDED A RECALL VOTE.

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  • Using corn for feeding machines instead of people and animals is devastating the meat industry and prices at the grocery store. Somthing must be done NOWto lower corn prices for the meat producer or there will soon be none left.

  • Alex T

    I’m so glad Obama is standing up to the Corn Congress. Oh whats that he’s in their pockets, well at least he’s a populist. What that’s bad for the economy, too? Well at least he can divert blame for his bad economic polices to the war in Iraq.

  • Alex T

    I’m so glad Obama is standing up to the Corn Congress. Oh whats that he’s in their pockets, well at least he’s a populist. What that’s bad for the economy, too? Well at least he can divert blame for his bad economic polices to the war in Iraq.

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  • Stephen J

    Hazel,

    This is a pure myth or outright lie regarding the use of Corn to make Ethanol destroying the food supply. Only a couple percent goes to feed humans. The vast majority of Corn goes to feed cows. Ah-ha you say, by making it into ethanol you are taking it away from the cows. Actually, no. When ethanol is made all you are doing is turning the starch(complex sugar) part of the corn into alcohol. The cows digestive system does not use this anyway, it goes right through. In fact, it hinders the absorption of the nutrients in the corn. All of the nutrients that the cows need and normally use from corn remains behind in the mash which is the main byproduct of ethanol production. This byproduct, called Distillers Grains(DG) is fed to the Cows. DDG (Dried Distillers Grains) has all of the nutrients that the cows would have gotten from eating straight corn without the Starch that hinders digestion and produces more meat per pound of corn than feeding straight corn. The fuel for food myth is a lie propagated by the oil companies to divert interest in ethanol. But when you do your own research, you not only find that making ethanol from corn(which isn’t even remotely close to the best crop for ethanol) doesn’t harm the food chain at all but that it is beneficial in so many other ways that it is almost to good to be true. The caveat to this though is that mass scale production of ethanol is not the best way to do it and does lead to waste that is unnecessary. Small scale, co-op based ethanol production is far superior. You can right now go out and produce your own ethanol from things as simple as the leftover donuts from a donut factory, and the permit to make up to 5000gal. a year is free. Beyond that, so may people are starting to make there own that the BATF department that handles the permits is swamped and can’t keep up with the applications. Please, do your own research and listen to the people that are doing it themselves. Don’t pay much attention to the mainstream information about ethanol. Alcohol Can Be a Gas, there is even a book by that title that is based on years of first hand research and doing it. It debunks all of the propaganda. You would be doing yourself a huge favor to look into it.

  • Stephen J

    Hazel,

    This is a pure myth or outright lie regarding the use of Corn to make Ethanol destroying the food supply. Only a couple percent goes to feed humans. The vast majority of Corn goes to feed cows. Ah-ha you say, by making it into ethanol you are taking it away from the cows. Actually, no. When ethanol is made all you are doing is turning the starch(complex sugar) part of the corn into alcohol. The cows digestive system does not use this anyway, it goes right through. In fact, it hinders the absorption of the nutrients in the corn. All of the nutrients that the cows need and normally use from corn remains behind in the mash which is the main byproduct of ethanol production. This byproduct, called Distillers Grains(DG) is fed to the Cows. DDG (Dried Distillers Grains) has all of the nutrients that the cows would have gotten from eating straight corn without the Starch that hinders digestion and produces more meat per pound of corn than feeding straight corn. The fuel for food myth is a lie propagated by the oil companies to divert interest in ethanol. But when you do your own research, you not only find that making ethanol from corn(which isn’t even remotely close to the best crop for ethanol) doesn’t harm the food chain at all but that it is beneficial in so many other ways that it is almost to good to be true. The caveat to this though is that mass scale production of ethanol is not the best way to do it and does lead to waste that is unnecessary. Small scale, co-op based ethanol production is far superior. You can right now go out and produce your own ethanol from things as simple as the leftover donuts from a donut factory, and the permit to make up to 5000gal. a year is free. Beyond that, so may people are starting to make there own that the BATF department that handles the permits is swamped and can’t keep up with the applications. Please, do your own research and listen to the people that are doing it themselves. Don’t pay much attention to the mainstream information about ethanol. Alcohol Can Be a Gas, there is even a book by that title that is based on years of first hand research and doing it. It debunks all of the propaganda. You would be doing yourself a huge favor to look into it.

  • Stephen J

    Hazel,

    This is a pure myth or outright lie regarding the use of Corn to make Ethanol destroying the food supply. Only a couple percent goes to feed humans. The vast majority of Corn goes to feed cows. Ah-ha you say, by making it into ethanol you are taking it away from the cows. Actually, no. When ethanol is made all you are doing is turning the starch(complex sugar) part of the corn into alcohol. The cows digestive system does not use this anyway, it goes right through. In fact, it hinders the absorption of the nutrients in the corn. All of the nutrients that the cows need and normally use from corn remains behind in the mash which is the main byproduct of ethanol production. This byproduct, called Distillers Grains(DG) is fed to the Cows. DDG (Dried Distillers Grains) has all of the nutrients that the cows would have gotten from eating straight corn without the Starch that hinders digestion and produces more meat per pound of corn than feeding straight corn. The fuel for food myth is a lie propagated by the oil companies to divert interest in ethanol. But when you do your own research, you not only find that making ethanol from corn(which isn’t even remotely close to the best crop for ethanol) doesn’t harm the food chain at all but that it is beneficial in so many other ways that it is almost to good to be true. The caveat to this though is that mass scale production of ethanol is not the best way to do it and does lead to waste that is unnecessary. Small scale, co-op based ethanol production is far superior. You can right now go out and produce your own ethanol from things as simple as the leftover donuts from a donut factory, and the permit to make up to 5000gal. a year is free. Beyond that, so may people are starting to make there own that the BATF department that handles the permits is swamped and can’t keep up with the applications. Please, do your own research and listen to the people that are doing it themselves. Don’t pay much attention to the mainstream information about ethanol. Alcohol Can Be a Gas, there is even a book by that title that is based on years of first hand research and doing it. It debunks all of the propaganda. You would be doing yourself a huge favor to look into it.

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