It has been quite a long time since I last bashed corn ethanol. I tired of this sport years ago. But a report from the Baker Institute gives academic credence to the obvious: Corn ethanol subsidies for energy security amount to bad policy.
The United States needs to fundamentally rethink its policy of promoting ethanol to diversify its energy sources and increase energy security, according to a new policy paper by Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
The paper, "Fundamentals of a Sustainable U.S. Biofuels Policy," questions the economic, environmental and logistical basis for the billions of dollars in federal subsidies and protectionist tariffs that go to domestic ethanol producers every year. "We need to set realistic targets for ethanol in the United States instead of just throwing taxpayer money out the window," said Amy Myers Jaffe, one of the report's authors.
Jaffe is a fellow in energy studies at the Baker Institute and associate director of the Rice Energy Program.
Corn ethanol costs a lot. It can't scale.
As an example of the unintended economic consequences of U.S. biofuels policy, the report notes that in 2008 "the U.S. government spent $4 billion in biofuels subsidies to replace roughly 2 percent of the U.S. gasoline supply. The average cost to the taxpayer of those 'substituted' barrels of gasoline was roughly $82 a barrel, or $1.95 per gallon on top of the retail gasoline price (i.e., what consumers pay at the pump)." The report questions whether mandated volumes for biofuels can be met and whether biofuels are improving the environment or energy security.
We do not have enough land for corn ethanol to make a big dent in our dependence on oil. Farming takes energy for tractors, fertilizer, and other purposes. Harvesting and transporting the corn to ethanol production facilities takes energy and the conversion process takes energy. According to some analysts one has to use energy equaled to 1 barrel of oil to get ethanol energy equivalent of 1.3 barrels of oil.
Agriculture creates damaging run-off that creates a big dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River. The idea that corn ethanol reduces CO2 emissions is in doubt.
The report, which includes analysis by environmental scientists, highlights the environmental threats posed by current biofuels policy. "Increases in corn-based ethanol production in the Midwest could cause an increase in detrimental regional environmental impacts," the study states, "including exacerbating damage to ecosystems and fisheries along the Mississippi River and in the Gulf of Mexico and creating water shortages in some areas experiencing significant increases in fuel crop irrigation." Moreover, the report challenges claims that ethanol use lowers greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and argues, "There is no scientific consensus on the climate-friendly nature of U.S.-produced corn-based ethanol, and it should not be credited with reducing GHGs when compared to the burning of traditional gasoline."
For a small fraction of the money we spend to subsidize corn ethanol we could fund more researchers to work on genetically engineering algae to excrete oil for diesel fuel. Algae probably have the best prospects for workable biomass energy.
The Baker Institute report on ethanol reminds of another recent report from Stanford researchers critical of ethanol's environmental effect on air quality. Ethanol increases ozone levels, especially in winter.
"What we found is that at the warmer temperatures, with E85, there is a slight increase in ozone compared to what gasoline would produce," said Diana Ginnebaugh, a doctoral candidate in civil and environmental engineering, who worked on the study. She will present the results of the study on Tuesday, Dec. 15, at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. "But even a slight increase is a concern, especially in a place like Los Angeles, because you already have episodes of high ozone that you have to be concerned about, so you don't want any increase."
But it was at colder temperatures, below freezing, that it appeared the health impacts of E85 would be felt most strongly.
"We found a pretty substantial increase in ozone production from E85 at cold temperatures, relative to gasoline when emissions and atmospheric chemistry alone were considered," Ginnebaugh said. Although ozone is generally lower under cold-temperature winter conditions, "If you switched to E85, suddenly you could have a place like Denver exceeding ozone health-effects limits and then they would have a health concern that they don't have now."
The problem with cold weather emissions arises because the catalytic converters used on vehicles have to warm up before they reach full efficiency. So until they get warm, a larger proportion of pollutants escapes from the tailpipe into the air.
We subsidize corn ethanol because of the power of the farm lobby and also due to naivete of a portion of the public that thinks anything involving more green plants must be a good idea.
|Share |||Randall Parker, 2010 January 06 11:51 PM Energy Biomass|