The problem with fuel ethanol from corn
November 12, 2013 7:29 AM   Subscribe

"The secret, dirty cost of Obama's green power push" The AP spent a year researching fuel ethanol from corn, and concludes that it's a bad idea: bad for the environment, bad for poor people, bad for everyone else. Not surprisingly, lobbyists for Big Corn have called it a hit piece and denounced it.
posted by Chocolate Pickle (50 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
I've always thought that corn ethanol was merely a waystation on the journey to something much more efficient and easy to propagate and scale up. Using your farmland to produce fuel instead of food is disastrous in a bunch of ways.
posted by nevercalm at 7:34 AM on November 12, 2013 [9 favorites]


I hope this gets more attention. Corn-derived ethanol can be OK in whiskey but is a horrible idea as a fuel additive. Apart from the environmental issues, it attracts water to the fuel causing all kinds of problems. If ethanol must be used, cellulosic ethanol might be practical someday and makes a lot more sense.
posted by exogenous at 7:37 AM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


The combustion of ethanol derived from corn doesn't significantly affect carbon emissions, and the production process requires the use of massive tracts of land that could otherwise be used to grow things like food. It has never made sense to me.
posted by triceryclops at 7:42 AM on November 12, 2013


This isn't exactly news, though, is it? It was always a bad idea on the surface. Too much energy goes in for the energy that comes out. But that's kind of a problem with biofuels in general. A colleague of mine once quoted the maximum efficiency of biofuels (that is, what percentage of the energy contained in the fuel source could be extracted and used) and it was in the single digits. Now maybe there's tech on the horizon that will change that, but until it comes along, ethanol is a red herring.
posted by that's candlepin at 7:43 AM on November 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


Secret? Corn based ethanol has long been thought to be a boondoggle right out of the gate. I'm not sure how much I'd put the blame on Obama, though.
posted by 2N2222 at 7:44 AM on November 12, 2013 [36 favorites]


It is dumb when viewed as an energy program, but makes perfect sense when viewed as a farm subsidy that happens to have the side-effect of creating motor fuel.

The alternative would be, as happened in the past, to pay farmers not to grow anything at all, or to buy corn from them and simply destroy it to keep it off the market (releasing it onto the market in any way might depress prices, which would be unacceptable).

It all boils down to farm subsidies.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:45 AM on November 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


But, paying farmers to grow nothing is good for the land, preventing nutrient depletion and topsoil loss.

Electric cars FTW
posted by Windopaene at 7:54 AM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


It all boils down to farm subsidies.

It doesn't get much more cynical than burning food to buy votes.
posted by mhoye at 7:57 AM on November 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


Oh WTF AP? "Obama's green power push"? Really? You start off the article with "when President George W. Bush signed a law that year requiring oil companies to add billions of gallons of ethanol to their gasoline each year" Sheesh. Energy policy of the Obama administration.
posted by gwint at 8:05 AM on November 12, 2013 [33 favorites]


Once again, Obama used his time machine to implement a bad policy during the Bush administration.
posted by dirigibleman at 8:07 AM on November 12, 2013 [69 favorites]


Growing corn for ethanol has never made sense. There are people starving in this world and instead we want to drive cars inefficiently by covering foodstuffs to fuel? I realise this is a gross oversimplification, but my dislike the abuse of the farming lobby of subsidies is second only to my hatred for "clean coal".
posted by arcticseal at 8:16 AM on November 12, 2013


Of course. If Obama had reduced the subsidy, AP would be throwing up a fulmination about him bowing down to Big Oil and stealing money from poor farmers.
posted by zombieflanders at 8:18 AM on November 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Obama supported that policy as a Senator and ethanol was a huge part of his Iowa primary campaigning and the administration is in full support behind ethanol as the article makes clear. It's fair to call this a bipartisan situation we are in here.

Not surprisingly, lobbyists for Big Corn have called it a hit piece and denounced it.

Specifically, blaming lobbyists for Big Oil. Lobbyist fight!

Articles like this have been giving me insight, I think, into why moderate Republicans remain moderate Republicans when it seems like they support so many government reforms in a general sense. Major government changes in policy and pushes for change are extremely complex and we can't necessarily rely on the competence of our politicians and bureaucrats to deliver. They can't get a hold on the economics and technical intricacies of what they are doing and end up making inevitable mistakes. Sometimes the "good enough" status quo and extremely minor, slow modifications to policy can be extremely attractive.

One thing the article did not seem to get in to was looking at the complete costs of fossil fuels. Yes, they discuss the environmental damage but one thing everybody always seems to look the other way on is that energy policy drives a ton of the perceived need for extreme military spending in the United States. Securing the global energy market is vital to our national security and that means we have to care about places we otherwise have no business caring about. It forces us into terrible situations and makes enemies we should not have to be dealing with. I think that is in part why an oil company linked guy like Bush supports ethanol.

Maybe if we could scale that down we could work on delivering delicious corn to the poor people instead and reclaim some respect around the world.
posted by Drinky Die at 8:25 AM on November 12, 2013


The alternative would be, as happened in the past, to pay farmers not to grow anything at all, or to buy corn from them and simply destroy it to keep it off the market (releasing it onto the market in any way might depress prices, which would be unacceptable).

Yeah, that's not actually true. Food prices have been rising through the roof for the past decade or so, and the smart money says it's largely due to the diversion of corn that would otherwise be used for food--or, at least, the diversion of land that would have otherwise been used for that--to the production of ethanol. The reason this happened is because subsidies created an artificial market for ethanol. Farmers were able to get an adequate price for corn and other crops as it was, only now there's this crop they can grow that gets them a ton more per acre.

So no, there's no need to pay them to grow nothing. There was already adequate demand. There are grain riots in the Third World.
posted by valkyryn at 8:26 AM on November 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I for one... just look at ethanol as a less efficient fuel that is somewhat renewable and doesn't come from the Middle East.

If it's just as bad for the environment and makes it so that the US doesn't have to invade other countries just to protect out livelihood... then I'm 100% for it, mpg be damned.
posted by Blue_Villain at 8:35 AM on November 12, 2013


and the smart money says it's largely due to the diversion of corn that would otherwise be used for food

The now dead website The Oil Drum and the spin off The Automatic Earth would beg to differ on that idea.

delivering delicious corn to the poor people instead and reclaim some respect around the world.

GMOed corn importation is banned in Mexico and parts of the EU. Then you have the African issue of 200(8?) where the US was willing to send whole corn as aid and the importing government would only accept it as cracked corn and the US was unwilling to do that.

So what you seek isn't going to be solved by simply stopping making corn into booze.
posted by rough ashlar at 8:41 AM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


What about the switch grass? Bush seemed to be downright ecstatic about it a few SOTU speeches ago.
posted by Strange Interlude at 8:45 AM on November 12, 2013


Less than 2 percent of Americans are farmers. As vote-buying tactics go this is just about as inefficient as corn ethanol itself.

Some kinds of biofuels make sense. Rapeseed oil biodiesel seems to be a pretty decent idea. But this particular form of biofuel looks like a sop to farmers and infrastructure that didn't want to deal with anything other than corn.
posted by 1adam12 at 8:47 AM on November 12, 2013


Less than 2 percent of Americans are farmers. As vote-buying tactics go this is just about as inefficient as corn ethanol itself.

But large agribusinesses are major lobbyists: crop production & basic processing gave $46.5 million from 2011-12 and agricultural services/products gave $41.8 million. Combined that's $88.3 million, comparable to the $113 million given by oil & gas and more than pharma ($80 million) or commercial banks ($72 million). That money buys a lot of votes from non-farmers in the form of advertisements, volunteer organizing, and travel.
posted by jedicus at 8:54 AM on November 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


This began waay before Obama.

It was my understanding that the ultimate idea of making ethanol from biomass was that it could be made from all the waste and unused crop bits, bark, branches and offcuts from forestry, and crops grown in otherwise unusable land (eg switchgrass). I don't know why it got locked on foodcrops. Big-agriculture lobbies, I guess.

Ethanol (up to 10%) has been ok in gas for autos, because the rate of use and turnover means it's used quickly. But it's been a royal pain for small engines, especially where the gas can sit in the tank for months. Even with stabilizer, the gas goes "bad" and old gas is especially troublesome in newer "cleaner" small 4-stroke engines with their ultra-tiny fuel jets.

I seek out and only use ethanol-free gas for our sailboat's outboard.
posted by Artful Codger at 8:55 AM on November 12, 2013


So what you seek isn't going to be solved by simply stopping making corn into booze.

Let me be clear, as a fan of bourbon I would never suggest such a thing. We must produce the precious corn juice. My comment there was not clear. What I meant to say is that if we could get to a place where we could focus foriegn policy on delivering aid rather than bombs it would be a big benefit for our country and the world. If ethanol can help us get there, I support it. I do not have a grasp of all the complexities involved to really say if it can help there or not. As the article points out, before ethanol the majority of corn was going to animal feed anyway and that is still a much bigger portion than human consumption. Starving people around the world is a distribution problem, it seems, more than a problem of what is being grown and why. Again though, all that is too complex for me to solve for the world.
posted by Drinky Die at 8:55 AM on November 12, 2013


Corn prices are not up simply because of Obama's ethanol policies. Commodities prices have been extremely high for a variety of factors including: speculation and market manipulation by Wall Street, growing demand for meat by middle class consumers (meat fattened on Corn), increased demand for packaged foods which are loaded up with high fructose corn syrup. Given the overall market trend on commodities from food stuffs to natural resources it seems extremely unlikely that the growth in corn cultivation is only a result of the national ethanol policies. Ultimately high corn prices are going drive increased cultivation.

Furthermore it should be noted that these areas placed under conservation were in private land ownership. They were not necessarily going to just sit there. If you think a corn field is terrible, consider what happens when the land ends up being converted to the next suburb or collection of big box stores next to the highway.
posted by humanfont at 8:56 AM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Less than 2 percent of Americans are farmers. As vote-buying tactics go this is just about as inefficient as corn ethanol itself.

Our wonderful primary system makes Iowa very important.
posted by Drinky Die at 8:57 AM on November 12, 2013


But large agribusinesses are major lobbyists...

And farm state Senate and EC votes are more valuable than non-farm state Senate and EC votes.

Hanging this around Obama's neck does bring with it the possibility that tea party types might kick up enough of a shitstorm that the subsidies are reduced or eliminated.
posted by notyou at 9:01 AM on November 12, 2013


Less than 2 percent of Americans are farmers.

This is true, but 100 years ago it was closer to 90%. That means there are tons of people whose grandparents were farmers, who still maybe have a few family members in the business, who maybe have a family plot, who still shop at Fleet Farm and own a John Deere lawnmower. If they've done well at their real job they might own a couple of acres and have horses or whatever. Basically, that's most of the middle of the country. Thanks to our crazy electoral system which rewards living in rural areas, these people have vastly disproportionate political influence. Anything that's good for farmers can buy a lot of votes from non-farmers.
posted by miyabo at 9:03 AM on November 12, 2013


> Our wonderful primary system makes Iowa very important.

The primaries are the least of it, even if that's when the media frenzy occurs.

The political power of each state in the U.S. is not a simple function of population. Iowa and New York have exactly the same number of Senators in the Congress, for example.
posted by ardgedee at 9:23 AM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


> Hanging this around Obama's neck does bring with it the possibility that tea party types might kick up enough of a shitstorm that the subsidies are reduced or eliminated.

Remember when the national health care debate prompted the Tea Partiers en masse to return their Medicaide, Medicaire, and VA health benefits?

Yeah.
posted by ardgedee at 9:25 AM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


If ethanol can help us get there, I support it. I do not have a grasp of all the complexities involved to really say if it can help there or not.

It won't help - at least not in any significant way. While corn-based ethanol shifts some energy demand from oil to natural gas (in the form of fertilizer), it isn't going to make a significant change in US oil demand such that US oil-based foreign policy will change at all.
posted by ssg at 10:30 AM on November 12, 2013


Apart from the environmental issues, it attracts water to the fuel causing all kinds of problems.

Assuming you are talking about the tendency of ethanol to form an azeotrope with water, then to be clear, that does not depend on the source, and applies equally to corn-based and cellulosic ethanol. Just so you know.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 10:45 AM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


You guys know who else was a big supporter of ethanol, right?
posted by ckape at 11:00 AM on November 12, 2013


This began waay before Obama.

I blame Obama for all kinds of stuff, and even I know this is such a stretch — to the point of axe-grinding. Corn subsidies have been around for years.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:01 AM on November 12, 2013


You guys know who else was a big supporter of ethanol, right?
W.C. Fields?
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 11:32 AM on November 12, 2013


The DesMoines Register carries the AP story without so much of the anti-Obama spin. The AP seems to have been pounding on Obama a lot lately, or is it just me?
posted by tommyD at 11:40 AM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


RTFA. Bush signed the law. Obama's EPA cooked the books (the CO2 model) so it would meet the requirements of the law, based on blue-sky numbers provided by Big Ag. And they omitted the impact of planting on conservation land.

But if you recall that earlier thread about how leaders are not leading but just reacting to events, no one is really responsible, so whatever. Vote Determinism 2016!
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 11:43 AM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Less than 2 percent of Americans are farmers.

This is Politics 101: public choice and special interests. It's not about the Iowa caucus or overrepresentation in the Senate. It is always much easier to effect your will when you have a small group (here, farmers) that is heavily affected and a large group (everyone else) that is lightly affected by a policy.
posted by psoas at 12:12 PM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Didn't last year's drought have an affect on corn prices?
The most severe and extensive drought in at least 25 years… The 2012 drought destroyed or damaged portions of the major field crops in the Midwest, particularly field corn and soybeans. This led to increases in the farm prices of corn, soybeans, and other field crops and, in turn, led to price increases for other inputs in the food supply such as animal feed. Though we saw some price increases for meats and animal-based products in the fourth quarter of 2012, most of the impacts on retail food prices were expected to occur in 2013.
Recently mentioned in a New Yorker article about weather insurance.
posted by morganw at 12:46 PM on November 12, 2013


There's a great paper on this by Sean Gillon that discusses, in part, how the EPA was pressured to change their science: "Fields of dreams: negotiating an ethanol agenda in the Midwest United States", Journal of Peasant Studies, 37:4, 723-748 (2010)
Certain aspects of US biofuels policy are easily counted, supported, and governed, like reducing corn surplus, fossil fuel consumption, GHG emissions, or dependence on foreign oil. Other policy issues are less easily confronted, such as addressing longstanding and unequal political economic relationships in agriculture or supporting conservation initiatives at odds with increasing corn production. Instead of addressing less tractable issues, policymakers and politicians make implicit assumptions that benefits will accrue to all and portraying US ethanol producing regions as happily accepting a new golden opportunity. For example, Iowa’s Republican Senator Charles E. Grassley, during campaigns for the 2008 US Presidential election, said, ‘Nowadays, I think [Iowa voters] kind of expect people to be for ethanol – whether they’re newly born- again ethanol people, or old-fashioned, long-term ethanol people’ (Murray 2007).
I'm actually reading about land grabs and ethanol for my environmental geography seminar this week. Non-food commodity crops (ex: rubber, palm oil) have been at the center of land grabs for centuries. What is different is the velocity with which finance capital rockets from one sector to the next. The efficiency or speed of the market in pouring investment into sectors like biofuel results in long-lasting changes to the landscape and built environment, changes that cannot easily be reversed in the event of plummeting commodity prices.
posted by spamandkimchi at 1:07 PM on November 12, 2013


P.S. A good chunk of the papers in that Peasant Studies special issue "Biofuels, Land and Agrarian Change" are free to access
posted by spamandkimchi at 1:10 PM on November 12, 2013


From a few years ago:

Defeated DFL gubernatorial candidate Mike Hatch has boiled his loss down to three factors, including his running mate's late-campaign inability to answer a question about a blend of ethanol during a swing through greater Minnesota.
posted by gimonca at 3:32 PM on November 12, 2013


It takes six inputs of energy, mostly petroleum, to make one output of corn ethanol. That's ridiculous. The fertilizers, the pesticides, the tractor fuel, the vast quantity of water -- disastrous. And all that pesticide and fertilizer washes down the Mississippi and creates the world's largest Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico when it's finished, too.

Where ethanol makes sense is in places like Brazil, where sugarcane grows without much assistance, and thus doesn't require vast amounts of energy input.

Sadly, we'll never get rid of ethanol in this country as long as Iowa is a state.
posted by Fnarf at 4:12 PM on November 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


the diversion of corn that would otherwise be used for food High Fructose Corn Syrup

FTFY.

Look, nobody is more opposed to ethanol fuels than I am, but this article is ridiculous. It describes standard farming economics and land exploitation like this never happened before. It happens all the time. And the article is rife with factual errors, like:

Nitrogen fertilizer, when it seeps into the water, is toxic. Children are especially susceptible to nitrate poisoning, which causes "blue baby" syndrome and can be deadly.

Scaremongering bullshit. Nitrates in the water are pollution, but they're a nutrient and cause algae blooms and other problems due to biological growth, not death. There are general health risks at extremely high levels of concentration, but this is not something people would ever encounter.

As an example, my dad built a house out in the country on farmland and had a well drilled for water. The State Hygienic Laboratory had to test the water before it could be declared safe for human consumption. The well tested positive for nitrates, past the threshold of risk for blue babies. The Lab inquired if there would be any children under the age of 3 living in the house. We were all over 10 years old, so they signed off on the well and declared it safe enough. They suggested that the water not be given to visiting infants, but unless the water was consumed over a longer term, there was almost no risk. I drank this water all the time, it tasted like crap, but that was because of the iron in the water. The biggest problem was iron stains on our laundry.

Around here, everyone who could possibly be at risk for children with blue baby syndrome, has their well water tested. It's common knowledge, and it used to happen long before the use of chemical fertilizers.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:30 PM on November 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


While I remain skeptical of the AP article I came across some interesting info from the US Grains Council

In 2011/12 harvest the US produced 12.5 billion bushels of corn, over 5 billion of those went for ethanol. The second largest use (4.5 billion) went into animal feed. Since 2008 we've shifted 2 billion bushels from food and feed to ethanol to move from 3 billion going into ethanol to 5.
posted by humanfont at 7:46 PM on November 12, 2013


Fnarf gets right to the point. If it takes almost as much (or more) energy to produce the energy you end up with, you're not really getting anywhere.

"Tar sands, grain ethanol, and ‘tight’ oil trapped in shale deposits that can be opened by hydrofracturing (‘fracking’) technology have been familiar to energy researchers for decades. The reason they were not part of the world’s liquid fuel supply until recently is that all three will only yield useful fuel given substantial inputs of fossil fuel energy and raw material. The tar sands and ethanol industries can afford these inputs at the moment because they receive lavish government subsidies [and] the ‘fracking’ industry in the United States is, as of this writing, the beneficiary of a speculative bubble on Wall Street, which is directing many billions of dollars of investment money into shale gas and shale oil projects… [I]t is becoming increasingly hard to dismiss the possibility that the temporary booms in these fuel sources are simply so many signs that the bottom of the liquid fuels barrel is being scraped." [p. 23-24]

"Any project that promises to keep the world’s fuel tanks topped up has been able to count on ample funding from government and private sources, no matter how small its chances of becoming economically viable and how large a burden it places on other economic sectors. The rise of the ethanol industry in the United States is a case in point.” [p. 124]

— from Not the Future We Ordered, John Michael Greer, 2013
posted by LeLiLo at 10:11 PM on November 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


If it takes almost as much (or more) energy to produce the energy you end up with, you're not really getting anywhere.

One time use or renewable? Oil is a use it and it's gone. So what if it costs 3 times the total energy for grown or solar, you can Make More.

(Yes the actual details are vastly more complex, and real value is tied to economic crap but why are we burning stuff once that has incredible value. Say useful plastic medical devices?)
posted by sammyo at 4:22 AM on November 13, 2013


It's worth mentioning that the corn we are talking about here - field corn, the type of corn that makes up well over 90% of what American farmers produce, would not be used for human 'food'. It would be used for high fructose corn syrup, or ground up into food for cattle and pigs (Debate over corn fed beef vs. grass fed beef is another matter).

Nearly all of the corn grown in the US is not grown for direct human consumption.
posted by drewski at 7:06 AM on November 13, 2013


There was this one episode of the old Superman TV show, where Clark and Lois report on a scientist who invented a machine that turns lead into gold. When the bad guys kidnap him, they force him to explain how it works, and he reveals, much to everyone's chagrin, that it requires an equal amount of platinum to make the transformation happen, so, while gold is the end result, you lose significant value in the process.

I'm reminded of it when I read about corn-based ethanol as a fuel additive.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 9:43 AM on November 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


my dislike the abuse of the farming lobby of subsidies is second only to my hatred for "clean coal".

I think you can make a pretty strong argument that farm subsidies are more pernicious and harm more people, and are more deeply entrenched at any rate, than the coal lobby. And while there have been technological improvements in coal combustion (generally over the opposition of the coal lobby, hilariously; e.g. pollution scrubbers), industrialized farming has seemingly only gotten more environmentally and socially destructive, decade after decade.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:54 AM on November 13, 2013


So what if it costs 3 times the total energy for grown or solar

Where exactly are you coming up with that idea of 3X more?

That fossil fuel is far more photons captured than a photons a PV panel or better yet direct solar heating for the same watt output.

A staggering 98 tons of prehistoric, buried plant material – that's 196,000 pounds – is required to produce each gallon of gasoline we burn in our cars, SUVs, trucks and other vehicles, according to a study conducted at the University of Utah. Hardly a 3x expansion.

If one just declares the "cost" to be "oh look, I just found this lying here" then perhaps this 3x times idea is true.

Perhaps however the "cost" one is used to paying is way undervalued?

Nearly all of the corn grown in the US is not grown for direct human consumption.

And corn like the old Starlink (GMO) are not supposed to be human consumed.
posted by rough ashlar at 1:19 PM on November 13, 2013


What ever happened to cellulosic ethanol? I thought corn ethanol was just supposed to be a stepping stone to making it from cellulosic plant matter, which is far easier to grow in our climate.

Or biodiesel? Why don't we all have diesel cars running on biodiesel?
posted by miyabo at 1:32 PM on November 13, 2013


What ever happened to cellulosic ethanol?

Harsh chemicals are still needed. A GMO method was designed and if it had been released might have killed almost all plants on land.

Either way one has to add heat energy to get the ethanol out.

There is the ACE(? - part of the old pre WWI ways to get acetone) reactions that get you buytals....ever smell racid butter? That is a very small amount of the buytal-type compound.....so there may be a consumer acceptance problem with other known plant matter -> liquid fuel conversions that don't have a high energy input to separate the "fuel" from water. That ACE(ABE?) reaction results in the fuel being able to be skimmed off the top of the water.

Or biodiesel?

The rather large volume of consumption is the issue.

Total energy = number of humans X how much energy each human uses

To get bio-diesel to work in a balanced equation one has to lower the amount of humans or the amount each human uses. And I don't see a whole lotta people signing up to balance that equation.
posted by rough ashlar at 1:43 PM on November 13, 2013


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