Do We Really Need To Burn Corn So We Can Drive 1/3 Less Miles To The Gallon?

by | Apr 23, 2019 |

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Biofuels, primarily ethanol in gasoline, provides 5% of our current energy use. Misguided environmental zealots believe it represents an ideal short-term solution for replacing fossil fuels for transportation and on-site energy generation. They argue that, because biofuels come from plants, they are natural, ‘green’ and nonpolluting. They claim that, in contrast to fossil fuels, biofuels are renewable and sustainable because they can be regrown every year.

Once one wakes up to reality, however, all of these arguments fail. The major losers in this current trend controlled by government regulation, which obviously benefits farmers who are suffering very low grain prices, is the public at large. Biofuels raise the price of transportation and our food concurrently. 

Here are some of the reasons why biofuels are not the answer to what some see as our energy problems (we drill down on each issue after this list):

1 – Numerous studies have proved that biofuels consume more energy than they produce.

2 – Biofuel production is extremely land intensive.

3 – Biofuels cost more than gasoline.

4 – Most cars and trucks can’t function using pure ethanol as fuel.

5 – Biofuel production competes with food production.

6 – Biofuel production and combustion creates more CO2 emissions than fossil fuels (though that should not matter). 

1 – David Pimental, professor emeritus of entomology at Cornell University, documented long ago that biofuels, primarily ethanol, consume more energy in their production than they produce. Pimental and others estimated that corn from an acre of land produces between 330 and 450 gallons of ethanol. As a gallon of ethanol only has 63% of the energy content of gasoline, 400 gallons of ethanol per acre is equivalent to about 250 gallons of gasoline. One has to account for the fossil fuels required to produce the energy needed to run the farm equipment used to plant, tend and harvest the corn, of course.  And, after harvesting, processing steps which include fermentation and distillation also require fossil fuels. The arithmetic shown in the original research articles calculates that 100,000 BTU of energy are required to produce a gallon of ethanol, which in turn will provide only 77,000 BTU. Clearly it makes no economic sense. 

2 – It takes a huge amount of our land to produce ethanol. We have about 320 million farmable acres in the conterminous 48 states. While it varies from year to year, we tend to use about 90 million of those acres to produce corn, and 40% of that corn goes to produce ethanol. That works out to about 10% of our farm land to produce an uneconomical fuel.

Replacing all currently used gasoline, 140 billion gallons, and diesel fuel, 143 billion gallons, would require 20 times the amount of ethanol that is being produced today. We would need 720 million acres of land to achieve this. Are you laughing yet?

3 – Biofuels cost more than gasoline, often much more. Ethanol is the cheapest biofuel available, and its disadvantage to gasoline is primarily its feed stock, which is corn. Its processing and transport costs are not dissimilar to that of petroleum. With corn around $4.00 a bushel, the feedstock cost of ethanol is about $1.60 per gallon.  However, it takes 1.5 gallons of ethanol to produce the same energy as a gallon of gasoline, which is to say, the same miles driven. This means that it costs $2.40 to produce an amount of ethanol that would create the same energy as a gallon of gasoline. 

The current cost for a barrel of oil (equal to 42 gallons) is $60 (it can vary by the day) leading to a feedstock cost of about $1.44.  After calculating that the barrel produces 19 gallons of gasoline and 12 gallons of fuel oil, the feedstock price comes to about $1.62, considerably less than that of ethanol. This price does not take into effect the extra costs to taxpayers for the subsidies granted to ethanol production, and in some cases, farm subsidies. Counting these hidden costs, the price of ethanol is easily twice that of gasoline. In either case, what you pay at the pump is usually considerably more due to taxes.

If you really want your blood to boil, consider that during the Obama Administration the President decreed that military transportation take advantage of biofuels in ships and airplanes. The early implementation of this order proved an economic as well as practical disaster.

4 – Ethanol is added to gasoline to improve performance. Although there is no problem with the current 10% ethanol in gasoline, efforts to increase that amount to 15% is being greeted with great resistance from the Automobile Association of America, which states that such a level will seriously overheat engines and damage many engine components, such as fuel pumps. Most cars and trucks can’t function at all using pure ethanol.

5 – Biofuel production competes with food production. Every acre of land now used for biofuel production was formerly used for food production, mainly as feed for livestock and poultry. Over 40% of US corn production has made the switch from food to fuel since 2005. Other crops including oats, barley, sorghum, wheat and hay have seen their acreage decrease as well in order to produce biofuel. This increases the prices of all these grains. Farmers are making these conversions away from food production because government subsidies promote ethanol, and the public pays those subsidies.

6 – While it should not matter (since man-made carbon dioxide (CO2) is almost certainly not a significant contributor to climate change), biofuel production and subsequent combustion has been shown to produce more CO2 emissions than gasoline alone. Biofuels are hydrocarbons, similar to the molecules found in gasoline which produce CO2 upon combustion. However, before getting to the ethanol stage, the sugars and starches in corn have to be fermented, which produces additional CO2. 

We should all appreciate our farmers for providing us with the most inexpensive and healthiest foods on our planet. The vagaries of weather and world grain production provide them with a roller coaster of good and bad years. We should all want to see them provided with a safety net to keep them going under the worst circumstances.  But having a safety net involving a nonsensical plan to make fuel from corn is clearly not the answer.

NOTE: Portions of this article have been excerpted with permission of the publisher and author of the 2018 book ‘The Mythology of Global Warming’ by Bruce Bunker PhD, published by Moonshine Cove. The authors recommend this book as an excellent source of information on the climate change debate.

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Dr. Jay Lehr is a Senior Policy Analyst with the International Climate Science Coalition and former Science Director of The Heartland Institute. He is an internationally renowned scientist, author, and speaker who has testified before Congress on dozens of occasions on environmental issues and consulted with nearly every agency of the national government and many foreign countries. After graduating from Princeton University at the age of 20 with a degree in Geological Engineering, he received the nation’s first Ph.D. in Groundwater Hydrology from the University of Arizona. He later became executive director of the National Association of Groundwater Scientists and Engineers.

Tom Harris is Executive Director of the Ottawa, Canada-based International Climate Science Coalition, and a policy advisor to The Heartland Institute. He has 40 years experience as a mechanical engineer/project manager, science and technology communications professional, technical trainer, and S&T advisor to a former Opposition Senior Environment Critic in Canada’s Parliament.

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