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.