From the New York Times, May 15, 2006: A. David Pimentel, a professor at Cornell University, published a paper in 2005 with Tad W. Patzek of the University of California, Berkeley stating that the corn-to-ethanol process powered by fossil fuels consumes 29 percent more energy than it produces. The results for switchgrass were even worse, the paper said, with a 50 percent net energy deficit. “I’m sympathetic, and I wish that ethanol production was a net positive and a help to this nation,” Dr. Pimentel said in an interview. “But I’m a scientist first and an agriculturalist second. I don’t think the U.S. will meet its goals with biofuels.” He also said the United States did not have enough agricultural land to displace gasoline with biofuels. “Even if we committed 100 percent of the corn crop to making ethanol, it would only replace 7 percent of U.S. vehicle fossil fuel use,” he said.
I had read something like this years ago, so I was surprised to see and hear numerous articles and news stories praising the idea of ethanol as a gas substitute for North America, and, just maybe, the long-dreamed-of solution to our dependence on foreign oil. I started thinking-- am I crazy? Did I dream that ethanol actually takes more energy to produce than it creates?
Even "60 Minutes" recently rhapsodized about the possibility of filling America's freeways, long after the Saud's are depleted, with biomass-fuelled cars, without once mentioning that corn is produced with the help of fertilizers, pesticides, tractors, machinery, and transport, all of which consume vast quantities of.... fuel. In fact, if you had to use ethanol to produce ethanol instead of fossil fuels, the absurdity would become clear: it would take 1.5 gallons of ethanol to produce one gallon of ethanol.
In short, ethanol is not cheap, not sustainable, and solves nothing. There is no way America could ever produce enough corn to produce enough ethanol to even begin to replace fossil fuels.
Think that particular study by Pimentel is biased? You would think, then, that defenders of ethanol would be happy to show you different studies that show different results. On the contrary, they tend to damn with faint praise, admitting that corn-based ethanol may never be able to replace, at best, more than 1/3 of our current fossil fuel requirements.
In all fairness, some scientists claim that ethanol can be more efficiently produced. In all fairness, the scientists who say that appear to be employed by ethanol manufacturers. Archer Daniels Midland is the largest manufacturer of ethanol. According to the Cato institute, it costs taxpayers about $30 for every $1 of ethanol produced.
Except one thing: it gives the American government an excuse to bribe farmers in Iowa to support a particular candidate in the early caucuses come election year, as "West Wing" dramatized (Republican candidate Arnold Vinick refused to endorse ethanol and, in this fantasy drama, still won the nomination).
Ethanol is a scam.