Ethanol, corn, and water

July 4, 2011
In November 2010 Americans elected a Congress pledged to make major cuts in federal government spending.

In November 2010 Americans elected a Congress pledged to make major cuts in federal government spending. On June 14, 2011, the Senate voted to ignore that pledge and keep the corn ethanol subsidy—$6 billion for 12.6 billion gal of corn ethanol in 2011, mandated by the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA). Two days later, the Senate reversed itself and voted to end both the subsidy and a protective tariff against ethanol from Brazil. This latest vote may not mean much as it is an amendment to a spending bill which may not pass. In addition, President Obama has indicated his opposition to an immediate end to the ethanol subsidy.

Producing 12.6 billion ethanol gal in 2011 will use nearly 5 billion corn bushels, 40% of the total US crop. That requires more than 30 million prime crop acres and uses 2 trillion gal of water for about 7% of US gasoline supply.

There's a major reason why 30 years of subsidies have not made food for fuel competitive or useful. We are attempting to replicate nature by trying to do what nature had the time and resources to do best. Oil comes from the very gradual cooking of biomass (ocean algae) into hydrocarbon fuel. A University of Utah study showed that nature needed 100 tons of algae to make just 1 gal of oil. But nature had millions of years' worth of prolific algae to produce those trillions of barrels of oil beneath the ocean bottom. So trying to use just this year's corn crop to make a sufficient quantity of a gasoline substitute doesn't work very well. In a typical year today, world hydrocarbon usage equals about 400 years of carbon sequestered from total world biomass growth. And biofuels don't really benefit the environment.

A University of Minnesota study led by Professor Sangwon Suh recently reported that in the US an average of 162 gal of water are consumed to produce a gallon of ethanol from corn. Drier states with more irrigation use more water, with Kansas and Nebraska requiring 500 water gal/ethanol gal. Much of that water is drawn from the declining Ogallala Aquifer.

Another study by Germany's Max Planck Institute and the University of California's Scripps Institute reported that the nitrogen fertilizers required by biofuel crops were releasing "enough nitrous oxide to cause climate warming instead of cooling." That study was led by Nobel chemist Paul Crutzen. In the US, the nitrogen ends up in the Mississippi, fostering those dead zones for sea life in the delta and the Gulf of Mexico.

The James A. Baker Institute at Rice University has released its report, "Fundamentals of a Sustainable US Biofuels Policy." On greenhouse gas emissions, the report says, "It is uncertain whether existing biofuels production provides any beneficial improvement over traditional gasoline after taking into account land use changes and emissions of nitrous oxide. Legislation giving biofuels preferences on the basis of greenhouse gas benefits should be avoided."

On its web site in 2009, Wisconsin ethanol producer Renew Energy Corp. declared its position as "the biofuels industry leader for innovation and efficiency."
"At our Jefferson plant," Renew stated, "we have built the largest dry mill corn fractionation facility in the world. This plant uses 35% less total energy and 33% less water per gallon of ethanol produced."

Shortly after, Renew Energy declared bankruptcy. Renew was not alone. It was joined in bankruptcy by VeraSun Corp. and Pacific Ethanol, two of the largest ethanol producers in the world, as the taxpayer-funded uneconomic corn-to-ethanol program continued. Production of ethanol from corn doesn't make economic sense. With corn currently at $7.50/bushel, the raw corn alone to make a gallon of ethanol costs $3. The June 14, 2010, wholesale Chicago Board of Trade price for a finished gallon of ethanol was $2.75.
Despite both poor economics and environmental stress, EISA mandates will require the production and use of those large volumes of bioethanol with or without the subsidies.

The laws of nature and economics are often not well understood in the US Congress.

Rolf E. Westgard
St. Paul, Minn.

(Editor's note: The writer is a member of the Geological Society of America and teacher of a class in the fall quarter, "Peak Oil and Peak Water," in the University of Minnesota Lifelong Learning Program.)

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