Issue Report: Corn ethanol

Should corn ethanol be emphasized in the fight against global warming?

Corn ethanol is ethanol produced from corn as a biomass through industrial fermentation, chemical processing and distillation. It is primarily used in the United States as an alternative to gasoline and petroleum (first-generation biofuel). Its is the most common type of Ethanol in the United States, but is considered less efficient than other types of ethanol (sugar cane, etc.) especially when only the vegetable itself is used and not the whole plant. Corn ethanol has been seen as an attractive option in recent years because it is a cleaner alternative to gasoline. Questions remain, however, regarding whether it should become a mainstay of international strategies to combat global warming. A number of questions frame the debate: Can corn ethanol truly help lower emissions and combat global warming? While cleaner than gasoline, does corn ethanol still emit significant quantities of greenhouse gases? Are these emissions, however, neutralized by the growth of the plant that goes into producing the biofuel? Are there other emissions related to the production and transportation of biofuels? Is methane a concern? Does corn ethanol have an impact on air quality? Does it require too much land to produce corn ethanol? Does this put pressure on agricultural production and increase food prices? Does it excessively increase the demand for and use of water? Can corn ethanol be produced on a massive scale, such that it can displace the use of oil in vehicles? Is it economical? Does it require subsidies? Do corn ethanol vehicles perform well? Are they practical cars to own? What do public think?
See Wikipedia’s article on corn ethanol for more background.

Global warming: Is corn ethanol helpful in fighting global warming?

Corn grown for ethanol acts first as a carbon sink

Any plant, when grown, draws carbon dioxide from the air in the process of photosynthesis. Corn grown for ethanol is just the same. When it is burned, and emits carbon dioxide into the air, it is actually only emitting the carbon dioxide that it had previously drawn out of the atmosphere. In this sense, corn ethanol is largely neutral in its carbon dioxide emissions; it gives and takes equally. Gasoline and natural gas, on the other hand, are releasing new carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The overall result is that corn ethanol production and use is far better for the environment and global warming.

Corn ethanol burns cleaner than gasoline

Ethanol, Fueling America's Future

“Ethanol is a clean-burning, renewable fuel…E85 is the cleanest burning fuel available on the market today…10% ethanol-enriched fuel reduces carbon monoxide better than any other gasoline — by as much as 30%…The use of 10% ethanol-enriched fuel reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 12 – 19% compared with conventional gasoline, according to Argonne National Laboratory…Ethanol reduces tailpipe fine particulate matter emissions by 50%. These emissions pose a threat to those with respiratory ailments.”

It requires less petroleum to produce corn ethanol than gasoline

While some argue that it more petroleum is burned in the production of corn ethanol than is burned in the production and use of gasoline, multiple studies indicate otherwise. Some of them conclude that the entire process of producing and using corn ethanol emits roughly 1/3 less carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases than the production and use of gasoline.

Ethanol energy is a net CO2 polluter

The primary concern here is the amount of fossil fuels that are burned in the process of producing corn ethanol, not just the emissions from the burning of corn ethanol alone. While corn ethanol could still be an improvement over gasoline in its net-C02

Corn ethanol incentivizes deforestation, contributing to global warming

Increasing demand for ethanol incentivizes the deforestation of rainforests and other areas to make way for corn crops. Because deforestation eliminates important carbon sinks that help combat global warming, corn ethanol, in so far as it leads to deforestation, worsens the global warming crisis.

Corn ethanol cannot compete with oil:

In terms of net energy gain, there is little comparison between corn ethanol and oil. Tad Patzek, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Cal Berkley says it would take three to six gallons of ethanol to achieve the same net energy gain as a gallon of oil.[1]

Net energy: Does corn ethanol yield a net energy gain?

Corn ethanol energy produces a net energy gain

Corn ethanol provides more energy for consumption than it takes to make the ethanol itself. This is important because if it takes more energy to actually make a fuel than energy is received out from that fuel, then what is the point of making the fuel in the first place? Numerous studies and camps support this claim that ethanol energy is a net energy gain. It would appear that more studies support this side of the argument, than the counter claim that ethanol is a net energy loss. See the list of supporting studies and claims in the argument page.

Relative to gasoline, corn ethanol has a good net energy gain.

The net energy balance of gas is 0.76, according to the National Defense Resource Council.[2] This means the amount of energy in gasoline is %20 less than the energy put in to extract the resource. With corn ethanol, estimates range from it being a net energy gain of around 1.4 to a net energy loss of around .8. This means that, in general, it produces an even higher net energy gain than gasoline. On relative terms, corn ethanol stacks up well to its main competitor; gasoline.

Ethanol energy involves a net loss of energy

A number of studies indicate that ethanol energy involves a net energy loss. This means that more energy is actually being used in the production of ethanol than is received out. See the list of studies in this argument page.

Transporting ethanol requires substantial ethanol

Alex Halperin. "Ethanol: Myths and Realities". Business Week. May 19, 2006

“Ethanol can’t travel in pipelines along with gasoline, because it picks up excess water and impurities. As a result, ethanol needs to be transported by trucks, trains, or barges, which is more expensive and complicated than sending it down a pipeline. As refiners switched to ethanol this spring, the change in transport needs has likely contributed to the rise in gas prices. Some experts argue that the U. S. doesn’t have adequate infrastructure for wide ethanol use.Also, ethanol contains less energy than gas. That means drivers have to make more frequent trips to the pump.”

Uncertainty regarding net energy of corn ethanol is troubling.

The fact that there is even debate about whether corn ethanol results in a net energy gain is troubling. It should not be a close call. A good energy resource should have a substantial net energy gain. It seems that corn ethanol does not fit this criteria.

Economics: Is corn ethanol beneficial economically?

Expansion of corn ethanol industries is increasing its viability.

Despite continuing doubts about whether corn ethanol provides a genuine energy savings, in the United States alone, at least 39 new ethanol plants are expected to be completed over the next 9 to 12 months. The new plants will add 1.4 billion gallons a year, a 30 percent increase over current production of 4.6 billion gallons, according to Dan Basse, president of AgResources, an economic forecasting firm in Chicago. By 2008, analysts predict ethanol output could reach 8 billion gallons a year.[3]

Ethanol is economically beneficial

Corn ethanol is economically beneficial in numerous ways. In general, any new fuel is a valuable contribution to energy security and the price-competition between various energy sources. This generally benefits consumers. In addition, the new corn ethanol industry creates jobs in numerous industries, including biotechnology and chemistry sectors.

Corn ethanol is competitive against high oil prices

Ethanol is economically competitive against rising oil prices. In the long-run, with gasoline reserves running out and energy demand growing, gasoline prices are set to rise exponentially. Corn ethanol prices, on the other hand have a long-term trajectory of dropping. This is because corn ethanol supply will only increase in the coming decades as the industry expands.

The corn ethanol boom is driven by political propaganda

The corn ethanol industry has grown largely due to powerful corn lobbies around the world. This lobby has been particularly strong in the United States. Yet, the case being made by these lobbyists is biased by a desire for profits, not to combat global warming.

High demand can increase corn ethanol and gas prices

Corn ethanol is typically mixed with gasoline. This means that any increase in the demand for corn ethanol will necessarily involve an increase in the demand for gasoline.

Ethanol energy does not get good fuel-economy with standard engines

Some claim that corn ethanol can increase fuel-economy by 15-30%. This is not a significant improvement over ordinary gasoline vehicles, particularly in the face of global warming.

Corn ethanol cannot scale

It is not feasible to produce the amount of corn required to make the fuel a viable alternative to oil or a serious supplier of energy.

Corn ethanol production costs too high despite investments

[The Economist, “Coming up empty”, March 27th 2010]: “Despite ample investment, production costs remain high and commercialisation elusive.”

Oil replacement: Is corn ethanol a good way to reduce oil use and dependence?

Ethanol is a means to reducing foreign oil dependencies

As a modest alternative to oil, among other alternatives, corn ethanol will help reduce foreign dependencies on oil. This has many important oil price and national security benefits.

Corn ethanol is a good local replacement for oil

On farms and towns where corn is being produced, corn ethanol is a particularly attractive fuel option. Because it is locally grown, it avoids the process of transporting oil from long distances. This cuts transportation costs out of the equation and protects the environment from emissions and pollution that result from the long-distance transportation of oil.

Corn ethanol is merely a part of the equation in replacing oil.

Very few people argue that corn ethanol is THEreplacement for oil and the solution to global warming. Rather, they argue that it is merely a part of the equation, or that it is an element of a diversified portfolio in both reducing foreign dependencies on oil and solving the problem of global warming. To argue that corn ethanol can’t fully replace oil is to miss this point.

Corn ethanol production is becoming more efficient relative to gasoline

While the technology and production methods advance in support of corn ethanol and as adequate corn supply is developed, the price of corn ethanol will decrease. Oil, conversely, is becoming increasingly scarce and difficult to produce, making it inevitable that oil prices will increase over the 21st century.

Corn ethanol will not be a significant substitute for oil

Corn ethanol production and use is currently only about 1% of US petroleum production and use. One source indicates that if 100% of corn resources were used in the country, it would still only constitute 16% of the total petroleum production and consumption. Corn ethanol, therefore, is not really capable of scaling to help replace gasoline.

Corn ethanol production demands too much oil to lower oil dependencies

Corn ethanol production demands a substantial amount of oil in the processing of corn into alcohol. Corn ethanol production, therefore, may actually increase demand for petroleum. Or, at least, the amount of petroleum used in the production of corn ethanol will cancel out the amount of foreign oil corn ethanol replaces.

Air-quality: Is corn ethanol better for air quality?

Corn ethanol has a positive effect on air quality

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory tested a 1998 Ford Taurus FFV running on E85, reporting, “Emissions of total potency weighted toxics (including benzene, 1,3-butadiene, formaldehyde, and acetaldehyde) for the FFV Taurus tested on E85 were 55% lower than that of the FFV tested on gasoline.”[4]

Corn ethanol damages air quality and causes respiratory illnesses

A health study by a Stanford professor indicates that emissions from the burning of corn ethanol production could have equal or worse air-quality and health effects as compared to the burning of gasoline. While corn ethanol emissions may be less problematic than gasoline to global warming, the impact on human health is certainly a significant issue to consider.

Land-use: Does ethanol energy use too much land?

Corn feedstock is a beneficial byproduct of corn ethanol production

The production of corn ethanol produces feedstock as a byproduct. This can make the land-use complimentary. Over 50% of corn is used as feedstock for livestock, which means that corn ethanol is very complimentary with common uses of land for corn.

Corn ethanol contributes to soil erosion and runoff

To produce corn ethanol, corn must be grown. If it is to be produced in mass, more land must be cleared to make room. Soil erosion is the natural result of clearing land for crop production. This has many environmentally negative impacts. Typically, it strips an ecosystem of its minerals, and the runoff that occurs sends silt as well as fertilizers and chemicals “down stream”, sometimes into local water supplies.

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