Editorial

Editorial by the Plain Talk When you stop and think about it, it's a no-brainer.

We consume more energy making ethanol than we save.

For years, politicians, corn growers and ethanol producers of this moonshine-like fuel have described it as a magic elixir, sure to ease our economic pains down on the farm while lessening the nation�s dependence on foreign oil.

There are some things that ethanol proponents never bring up. They never mention that it takes fossil fuel energy to plant, cultivate, fertilize, harvest and transport corn.

More fossil energy is consumed crushing, fermenting and distilling corn into ethanol. Then comes the fossil fuel consumed in shipping and the cost of mixing it with gasoline. In effect, we�re using raw fuel to make raw fuel, a curious way to save energy.

And not very efficient energy at that. Ethanol burns less efficiently than gasoline, so we�ll have to use more of it, which adds to its cost.

Numerous guest editorials have been published on this page touting the benefits of ethanol to South Dakota.

In our June 10 edition, Krystal Smit of the South Dakota Corn Growers Association noted that if one listens closely, they can hear the �hum of the ethanol industry generating jobs, generating economic activity, generating income for South Dakota farmers, and generating power for an agriculturally-based state.�

Our Congressional delegation likes to talk about ethanol, too. Most recently, in May, June and this month respectively, Sen. Tim Johnson, Sen. John Thune and Rep. Stephanie Herseth have all announced that legislation they�ve supported has been approved, all with a similar outcome: the phasing in of a nationwide Renewable Fuel Standard of 8 billion gallons of ethanol production over the next seven years.

The legislation has been widely praised. It�s seen as a godsend to farmers and the ethanol industry in states like South Dakota.

Put all of the rhetoric aside for moment, however. Scientists have been crunching numbers recently, searching for an answer to a question that even the staunchest defender of ethanol has had to wrestle with: is ethanol production energy efficient? In other words, does the energy contained in a gallon of ethanol exceed the energy consumed to produce it?

Not by a long shot.

Researchers at Cornell University and at the University of California, Berkeley, say it takes 29 percent more fossil energy to turn corn into ethanol than the amount of fuel the process produces. For switch grass, a warm weather perennial grass found in the Great Plains and eastern United States, it takes 45 percent more energy, and for wood, 57 percent.

It takes 27 percent more energy to turn soybeans into biodiesel fuel and more than double the energy produced is needed to do the same to sunflower plants, the study found.

"Ethanol production in the United States does not benefit the nation�s energy security, its agriculture, the economy, or the environment," according to the study by Cornell�s David Pimentel and Berkeley�s Tad Patzek. They conclude the country would be better off investing in solar, wind and hydrogen energy.

The researchers included such factors as the energy used in producing the crop � costs that were not used in other studies that support ethanol production, Pimentel said.

And here�s one crucial part of their research that likely will sting the most here in the Great Plains: The study omitted $3 billion in state and federal government subsidies that go toward ethanol production in the United States each year, payments that mask the true costs.

Three billion dollars. With a 'b.'

In 2004, U.S. domestic ethanol production topped out at 3.45 billion gallons. That means for every 1.15 gallons of ethanol produced in the country last year, the American taxpayer doled out $1 in state or federal taxes. Does that mean state and federal subsidies will grow to approximately $8 billion annually by 2012?

Supporters note that ethanol functions as an economic stimulus package, creating new ag-related markets, new investments and new jobs.

Congress wasn�t simply looking out for John Doe, the farmer, however, when it passed the 8 billion gallon renewable fuel standard. It wasn�t looking out for places like Broin Industries and other operators of small ethanol plants in states like South Dakota.

Ethanol production is growing into a big business. That means those with the deepest pockets � such as ADM, the top producer of ethanol from Decatur, IL � has money for lobbying and campaign contributions and the like for those on Capitol Hill who vote to allocate our tax dollars to ethanol.

Beyond 2012, the comprehensive energy bill now before Congress would require more increases in ethanol production �in perpetuity.� In other words, an unending artificial market and unending corporate welfare.

A more efficient way of helping the ag economy is to simply maintain or increase government farm payments to farmers, not the ethanol industry.

And if we as a nation truly want to avert an energy crisis, we should, as noted earlier, devote our resources into developing solar, wind and hydrogen sources.

It's also time to seriously look at ways to lessen our dependence on foreign oil. You can�t blame OPEC for hiking the price of the fossil fuel time and again. We are gobbling it as if there is an unlimited supply. There isn�t. Someday, in the not so distant future, the world�s supply of oil will be diminished.

Ethanol production may make us feel like we have at least a small part of our energy policy under control. It�s a false sense of security, however.

Ethanol is no replacement for all of the oil-based fuels and other byproducts that we�re depending on at ever increasing levels.

The Vermillion Plain Talk editorials reflect the opinion of Plain Talk editor David Lias. You may contact him at david.lias@plaintalk.net.

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