Ethanol: Feed a Person for a Year or Fill Up an SUV?

Robert Bryce of Counterpunch comments on what he calls the ethanol scam:

Lester Brown, the president of the Earth Policy Institute wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece that the amount of grain needed to make enough ethanol to fill a 25-gallon SUV tank "would feed one person for a full year. If the United States converted its entire grain harvest into ethanol, it would satisfy less than 16 percent of its automotive needs."

Brown said the ongoing ethanol boom in the U.S. was "setting the stage for an epic competition. In a narrow sense, it is one between the world’s supermarkets and its service stations." More broadly, "it is a battle between the world’s 800 million automobile owners, who want to maintain their mobility, and the world’s two billion poorest people, who simply want to survive."

Using food to make fuel bothers many analysts, and whether their affiliation is liberal or conservative doesn’t seem to matter. Dennis Avery, director of global food issues at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think-tank in Washington, D.C., has concerns that are remarkably similar to Brown’s. A few days after Brown’s piece appeared in the Post, Avery published a paper showing that ethanol simply cannot provide enough motor fuel to make a significant difference in America’s fuel consumption. And like Brown, he laid bare the essential question: food or fuel?

Photo: sudergal/Flickr

  • Some Jerk

    Yet another example of the perfect being the enemy of the good. Of course making ethanol from corn is a poor use of resources. However, getting the infrastructure to distribute ethanol and biodiesel is a prerequisite to distributing second generation biofuels.

    The enzymes, bacteria and algae we need to digest organic materials not suitable for food are moving into testing now. There are several promising feedstocks, none of which compete with food supplies.

    Rather than complaining about “scams”, it would be more useful for progressives to support mandates to get biofuel pumps at retail outlets. This is an area where NYC is way behind. You can find biodiesel at any number of pumps in Seattle, but there is no commercial biodiesel pump ANYWHERE in the boros that I can find.

  • Tristate Biodiesel is probably the best program around. Instead of taking primary food production, they are taking cooking oil waste and converting it to biodiesel. It’s not a silver bullet for all our needs, but it could help power some critical infrastructure vehicles (Police, Fire, Sanitation, Ambulances, etc).

    Sign up now to lock in the best price and guarantee biodiesel supply. Minimum order 8000 gallons—Price $2.65 per gallon B100, FOB Red Hook, Brooklyn. Contact us today to set up an account.

  • Some Jerk

    Yeah, I saw their site in my research. Bloomberg should mandate Mobil start selling B20 or B100 at their stations leased from the city on the parkways. Or offer 50% grants for the costs of independent retailers adding the pumps. If he’s serious about CO2 reductions, that’s the way to go.

  • moocow

    We have a battle on two fronts, to end oil dependence, then we have to kill our needless car culture. Do we really have to use food to power the thing that will just sit in biofuel traffic jams? Do we really have to eat more fried gunk, to then use that waste to pollute our world? The question, it seems, always comes back to need vs. desire, and they always have two different answers.

  • Nicolo Macchiavelli

    I continue to worry that I am the only scribe on this blog to concern himself with the dirty business of politcs and political-economy continually saddened as well-meaning and socially conscious, educated people continue to muck around in the technological issues involved in energy production and distribution. Some jerk wants “mandates” to do this or that, what about taxes? Drive the price up you get plenty of “alternatives”. And Glenn, concerned about “critical infrastructure needs” addresses the same Police and Fire Departments that send their gofers out for pizza in enormous SUVs. In #3 Some Jerk is back talking about “grants”. Where did we get the money? Fuel taxes? And MooCow concerns him or herself with need v. desire conundrums. Try Say”s “Law of Markets”.

    Could it be that Iowa really likes corn production and that corn futures are really taking off because politicians of both parties have “discovered” that you can make fuel from corn? And additionally have discovered the Iowa produces lots of corn and coincidentally has a lot of early influence on the election campaigns.

  • ABG

    So what’s your suggestion, Nicolo? What would the Prince do?

    I’m personally happy to be on the side of the two billion poorest on this one. A car that runs on one fart a day and produces nothing but pure water would still require lots of pavement which it would then dominate, and kill people who happen to get in its way.

    I’m not going to waste any of my time or money thinking about alternative fuels, and I’d like the government to stop funding that research, and subsidizing ethanol, with my tax dollars and use it to rebuild the rail infrastructure that was sold off for scrap over the past fifty years.

    Yes, natural gas buses are nice, and alternative fuel trains would be nice too, but I think there’s enough private-sector funding to develop those technologies.

  • crzwdjk

    The nice things about trains is that they can be electric. And that doesn’t require any liquid fuels at all, making the energy problem that much easier to solve.


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