Hey Mr. Green,
In an attempt to be greener, the company I work for switched the fleet vehicle to the Chevy Impala which has the FleFuel E85 capability. However, I know that corn-based ethanol is not the ideal alternative, since it dumps carbon dioxide into the air during productions, and gets fewer miles to the gallon. Is E85 for the fleet vehicle any greener? Or should I still fill up with regular unleaded?
–Roy in Sisters, Oregon
I remain quite skeptical about corn ethanol, which some environmentalists still consider a superior biofuel alternative. In our rush for energy sources that’ll reduce global warming, we seem to be forgetting about other environmental issues, like wildlife habitat, water pollution, depletion by irrigation, soil erosion, and so forth. Depending on where it’s being grown, corn can cause all these problems. Aside from the moral dilemma of using corn as fuel, I'm not convinced that there’s any net benefit to the environment in ethanol.
Corn is one of the most magnificent and productive plants. But raising too much of it in the wrong places can turn it into one of the most destructive. Having grown up on a hybrid corn farm right next to a corn-processing company, and having worked every summer of my youth in test plots with dedicated corn breeders, my awe of the species is so intense that its misuse seems like downright sacrilege. It's perfectly easy for anybody who has experienced the power and glory of maize to understand why its Aztec cultivators worshiped a goddess of corn.
Theology aside, increasing use of ethanol is bound to raise demand for corn, the hyper-cultivation of which already poses environmental problems exposed by many scientific observers. In the past 20 years, U.S. corn acreage increased from less than 70 million acres, and spiked at almost 94 million in 2007, though it’s dropped down to about 85 million, partly because of lower market prices. If demand or other factors such as weather drive up prices, that acreage could expand.
Among the effects on the habitat could be the removal of millions of acres of land from the Conservation Reserve Program. This would harm wildlife on reserve land and cause much erosion. One study concluded that in Iowa alone, sediment losses could increase from less than 5 million to 30 million tons if more than 1.35 million more acres in Iowa acres were put back into production, and could reach 78 million tons if all of Iowa's 2 million CRP land were plowed up.
But it's not only about all the wildlife and soil displaced by Midwest farming. The fertilizer washing off fields and flowing down the Mississippi helps create the Gulf of Mexico’s notorious dead zone. The same study projects a huge addition to an already prodigious nitrogen loss if acreage is increased.
In many areas, corn irrigation further taxes the environment. In Kansas, for example, it can soak up as much as 18 inches of water per acre to produce a 200-bushel crop—a staggering half-million gallons Thirsty agriculture draws so much water from the ground that there is serious concern about the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer, the major underground water source for a region that runs from South Dakota to Texas.
True, ethanol has some effect in combating global warming by reducing net carbon dioxide emissions, though you have to burn a lot of fossil fuel to produce it. Even the most positive assessment I've seen (PDF) says that it takes more than half as much energy to produce the ethanol as it contains. Another study (PDF) even claims a 29 percent loss.
As with most environmental issues, the economy is deeply involved. Because of intense pressure from corn-growing regions, ethanol has been heavily subsidized by tax credits. These are now 45 cents a gallon, and will soon reach $5 billion per year. It might make more sense to harness those legendary Wizard of Oz Kansas winds than letting agribusiness “wizards” keep blowing smoke at Congress.
Acre by acre, you can get 200 to 300 times the equivalent in electrical energy per acre of windmill, and $5 billion worth of windmills could generate around $1.5 billion worth of electricity each year, which seems like a more sensible long-term investment than ethanol (PDF). Not that wind is a panacea, because you'd also have to build service roads and power lines, plus allow for space between the windmills from 5 to 10 times the diameter of their humongous rotors. However, much of the land between the windmills can still be used for agriculture.
These are among the many reasons why I keep on harping about the need for radical energy conservation while warning against utopian hopes for new technologies. We certainly do need to develop clean alternatives to fossil fuel, but this possibility shouldn't lull us into believing that we can continue to binge on fossil fuels and emit more carbon dioxide than the new technology offsets—or worse yet, that we can blunder into new wars for oil.