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By Robert Rapier on May 7, 2006 with no responses

60 Minutes – The Ethanol Solution

I just finished watching the 60 Minutes piece on ethanol production. Wow. What a puff piece. I thought at least I might see some attempt at balance. But there was no mention of the disadvantages at all. It makes you wonder why ethanol is the least bit controversial. Let’s break the piece down a bit.

Dan Rather on Brazil

Rather pointed out that Brazil has virtually stopped importing foreign oil by switching to ethanol. He said ethanol is cheaper and cleaner. He had Berkeley professor Daniel Kammen on, who said that Brazil made a commitment to ethanol, and then followed through.

So, if Brazil can do it, why not us? Right? Or was Brazil able to do it for reasons other than making a serious commitment?

First, Brazil uses sugarcane to produce ethanol. It is hands down the best crop for making ethanol. The ethanol yield per acre is twice that of corn ethanol, and the energy requirements for refining the crude ethanol are far lower. Unfortunately, the climate in most of the U.S. is not amenable to sugarcane production.

Second, they showed a brief shot of Brazil’s highways. You know what I saw? No Hummers. No SUVs. No pickups. No large vehicles of any kind. That’s one reason the average annual per capita energy consumption in Brazil is 36.3 million BTUs/person. On the other hand, the average in the U.S. is 209.7 million BTUs/person – almost 6 times as much! Are you starting to get a picture of why Brazil can do it?

Finally, I couldn’t help but notice the absolute irony of one clip showing workers in Brazil out in the field hacking down sugarcane by hand. Then, they showed a clip in the U.S. where they were harvesting corn by tractor. One requires fossil fuel energy inputs. One requires cheap manual labor.

Dan Rather Back in the U.S.

Dan said that 10% ethanol won’t replace much foreign oil, “unless Americans switch to E85″. If Rather had bothered to do a bit more research, he would have found that even if we turned the entire corn crop into ethanol, it would provide less than 15% of the annual motor fuel demand. At the same time, due to the huge inputs of natural gas required to produce ethanol, we would consume enormous quantities of natural gas, driving the price higher, and in turn driving the ethanol price higher.

Rather toured an ethanol refinery. They discussed the distillation step. Where does Rather think the energy for the distillation comes from? Does he think they are creating enough energy to drive the distillation? Frankly, I would love to see someone run an ethanol refinery in this manner – drive the distillation by the energy that was produced. The charade would come to a screeching halt when they discovered that they couldn’t supply the energy needs of the refinery with the energy they produce.

Rather interviewed some corn farmers, who stated “we have raised the price of corn $0.05-$0.10/bushel”. That’s great for the corn farmer, but let’s point out that this also raises the price of everything in the food chain that is based on corn.

Rather asked Professor Kammen “Is ethanol the best way to reduce our importation of oil?” Let me take that one, Dan. No. Conservation is the best, and quickest way to reduce our importation of oil. Hands down. No controversy.

Professor Kammen admitted that the greenhouse gas reduction would be “modest“. Why do you suppose a “green” fuel would only have a “modest” greenhouse gas reduction? Because of the large quantities of fossil fuel inputs required to make the ethanol.

Rather mentioned on a couple of occasions the “multi-billion dollar profits” that oil companies are making. How much does he think ADM has profited, as a result of a government-created and heavily subsidized industry?

Dan Talks Disadvantages

Actually, he didn’t. So, I will. Here’s just a few things that Rather neglected to mention. E85 will significantly reduce your gas mileage: Gas Mileage of Flexible-Fueled Vehicles. Government-run tests documented at this site show the reduction in mileage for various flex-fuel vehicles. A Ford Taurus, for instance, is reported to get 29 mpg on the highway running on gasoline, and 21 mpg running on E85.

The amount of energy created per gallon of ethanol produced is very small, yet ethanol is subsidized on a per gallon basis. This means to displace a single gallon of gasoline requires anywhere from $4.00 to over $7.00 in subsidies, depending on whether you include the corn subsidies.

The cost of ethanol in the U.S. is consistently and substantially higher than the cost for gasoline. The only reason you don’t see this reflected at the pumps is because of the subsidy. But you can see a history of ethanol price versus mid-grade gasoline prices here. Friday’s closing prices on the market, for instance, were $2.77 for ethanol and $2.04 for mid-grade gasoline. Given that ethanol contains less than 70% of the BTUs that gasoline contains, the price per BTU is even more disadvantageous for ethanol.

Rather kept mentioning how clean ethanol is. First, ethanol raises the vapor pressure of gasoline, which increases smog. That’s why ethanol blended reformulated gasoline has to have a vapor pressure waiver. Second, corn farming is certainly not clean. Consider a recent report by Lester Lave and Michael Griffin, from Carnegie Mellon University. They write :

Corn farming is rough on the environment. Soil erosion due to wind and water is rampant. Fertilizer and pesticide runoffs produce algae blooms that result in “dead zones,” including one in the Gulf of Mexico that is so polluted it cannot support aquatic life.

In summary, I would hardly call this puff piece journalism. It looks like something the ethanol lobby put together. It does a disservice to the American public by lulling them into thinking this is a potential solution to our energy problem. Without a substantial effort at conservation, it is folly to suggest that grain-derived ethanol offers anything other than false hope.