ME SO CORNY

Posted in Rants on May 14th, 2008 by Ed

We all know that gasoline is plowing toward $4/gal. I bet you didn't know that the price of corn, which was $2/bushel in 2005, is now over $6/bushel. Part of that is increased fuel and transportation costs. And part of it is in your gas tank.

One of my particularly conservative friends asked me recently why dirty liberals don't get excited about ethanol the same way they get excited about recycling, hybrids, and David Sedaris. A superficial understanding of the issue suggests that we should be excited – it's renewable, it gives farmers an expanded market for their commodities, it aids in "energy independence" or whatever, and so on. Unfortunately my response is pretty straightforward: no one gets excited about ethanol because it is a monumental crock of shit and a terrible product. By the time we wrap up this ludicrous half-century experiment it will hold its own against the greatest boondoggles in history, somewhere between the Concorde and the Iraqi Reconstruction.

Ethanol has been the "fuel of the future" for about 40 years, enjoying a surge in popularity every time the cost of gasoline shocks America. It remains "the next big thing" for the same reasons it never actually becomes the present big thing: it's a quick-fix, politically expedient solution that promises not to make Americans change their habits. We can drive the same idiotic vehicles, only with different fuel in the tank. This is why foot-dragging behemoths like General Motors (and Congress) are pimping E85 like it cures cancer. It's "clean", it subsidizes the idealized vision of rural America, and requires a minimum of mechanical changes in gasoline combustion engines.

Corn grown in the United States may be the single most heavily subsidized commodity on the planet. Since 1995, corn farmers have received over $60 billion in Federal subsidies. The vast majority of corn still goes into the food chain (either directly or as feed) but the amount diverted into the ethanol white elephant has grown five-fold since 2003. Despite banal promises that "new technologies" and more research will suddenly turn ethanol into a miracle cure for our energy needs, nearly four decades' worth of effort have yet to overcome the fundamental flaws in the product. Yet Congress has mandated that by 2022 we have to increase our production of this shit from 6 billion barrels per year to 36 billion (and remember, we're using 150 billion gallons of fossil fuels every year according to the DoE). You're welcome, Iowa Farmers / Welfare Queens.

What's wrong with ethanol? First, ethanol evaporates when mixed with gasoline. Mandating a blend of the two products (almost all gas sold today is E10, i.e. 10% ethanol) dramatically increases the costs of refining to compensate for this problem. Second, ethanol costs more energy per gallon to produce than is contained in the gallon of ethanol itself. Third, a gallon of E85 contains almost 1/4 less energy than a gallon of gasoline, so you need to use more of it. It kills fuel economy. This more than offsets the fact that E85 costs less at the pump. Fourth, it is only cheaper (or economically competitive with gasoline) because of a truly staggering level of government subsidy; almost $1.40 per gallon, compared to subsidies of 0.3 cents per gallon for gasoline. In other words, without Uncle Sam underwriting every stage of the process from planting to pumping, the cost of ethanol would make regular gasoline look cheap. Real cheap.

A deep flaw in the American character is the blind faith that technology is going to save us. In the 1950s nuclear power was going to be too cheap to meter. Then hydrogen power was going to be more abundant than air itself. Now biofuels are the magic ticket. Ethanol is nothing more than a fad – one whose staying power is attributable to the enormous political influence of agribusiness (and ethanol king ADM in particular). But ethanol, which is nothing more than the grain alcohol you put in fruit punch to make weddings more bearable, is a terrible product with absolutely no potential to replace gasoline. To replace our gasoline usage gallon-for-gallon, we'd have to plant corn on every square inch of the United States – and part of Canada. And more efficient ethanol crops ("cellulosic ethanol" produced from switchgrass or sugarcane) are nothing more than pipe dreams at the moment. We are to believe, of course, that shoveling money into this black hole for another 20 years will make cellulosic ethanol a reality. And that's our national neurosis – our behavior doesn't need to change because the solution to all our problems is (always) right around the corner.

I am not going to sit here and tell you that gasoline is a good product or that our use of it is sustainable. But suitable replacements should be things that pollute less, cost less, and are more efficient. Since ethanol is inefficient to produce, pollutes just as much as gasoline, and costs far more, this endeavor amounts to little more than Chuck Grassley, ADM executives, and a bunch of Iowa farmers breaking it off in your ass while exchanging high-fives and lighting cigars with government cash.