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The Rush To Corn-Based Ethanol: Not All Biofuels are Created Equal

Aug 28, 2013

While global demand for fossil fuels grows, gasoline prices remain volatile. Add in concerns about climate change and alternatives to oil-based fuels look increasingly attractive. However, corn-based ethanol, the most prominent biofuel in the United States, will not answer any of these issues.

The ability of corn-based ethanol to reduce U.S. dependency on foreign oil is limited; even dedicating the entire U.S. corn crop to ethanol would displace only a small share of gasoline demand.  Plus ethanol does little to nothing to fight climate change. Large-scale corn production requires farm equipment that runs on fossil fuels. Coal-powered ethanol refineries can lead to higher greenhouse gas emissions than the fossil fuel ethanol is intended to replace.

Is Ethanol the Solution to Energy Independence?

Corn growers and ethanol producers talk enthusiastically about replacing the oil fields of the Middle East with the corn fields of the Midwest. But the true potential for biofuels to replace oil is not as sparkling as the rhetoric.

The most favorable estimates, which include still-developing cellulosic feedstocks, point out that fuel made from biomass can replace only a fourth to a third of transport-related oil consumption.  The Congressional Research Service has estimated that even if 100 percent of the U.S. corn harvest were dedicated to ethanol, it would displace less than 15 percent of national gasoline use.

When blended with gasoline, ethanol  helps to burn the fuel more effectively and produce less pollution. Ethanol’s role as an oxygenate  G   became prominent in the mid-2000s when many states began banning the more widely used oxygenate MTBE. MTBE was found to be a drinking water contaminant requiring expensive cleanup efforts. Ethanol became touted as a safe alternative resulting in a big push to blend it with gasoline. This does seem like a redeeming quality, but is not enough of a reason to expand corn-ethanol use.

Ethanol and Factory Farming

Ethanol production is often tied to factory farming  G of livestock. Ethanol plants produce byproducts that can be used as feed for animals, in turn, factory farms can sell animal manure as fuel for ethanol plants. These synergies may increase efficiency for both the ethanol and the livestock industries, but have the potential to seriously affect environmental quality, human health, and communities throughout entire regions.

The increasing concentration and industrialization of the U.S. agricultural sector has resulted in factory farms where animals are raised by the thousands, often in crowded conditions.  Huge amounts of manure accumulate in open lagoons that can cause air and water pollution. The waste can contaminate water bodies with E. coli and other bacteria.

Livestock production and ethanol production are both water intensive. Siting both types of facilities in the same area could greatly reduce water availability, particularly in Midwestern regions that already suffer from water scarcity.

Corn and Pollution

Intensive corn monoculture  G has serious environmental effects that are exacerbated by the ethanol boom.

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