10 Problems with Ethanol
The ongoing turmoil in the Middle East has resulted in higher gas prices, inconveniencing Americans who are already attempting to pick up the pieces following the recent economic downturn. In recent years, ethanol has become a popular alternative to gasoline because of its low cost and ability to burn cleanly. However, with the government’s quest to increase ethanol production and reduce our dependence on oil, the latter of which is a necessary goal, many of ethanol’s flaws have been overlooked. Whether you’re concerned for the environment or just a college kid on a budget, you should first consider the following 10 reasons to steer away from the corn-based fuel before making it a regular purchase.
- Ethanol is less efficient than gasoline: It requires 1.5 gallons of ethanol to drive the same distance as you would with one gallon of gasoline. Depending on the vehicle, that can translate to about five or six miles per gallon fewer on highway driving and four or five miles per gallon fewer during city driving, a major inconvenience for people who are already tired of filling up more often than they should.
- Although less expensive, ethanol ultimately costs the same as gasoline: When this article was written, the average price of e85 was $3.34 and the average price of gasoline was $3.80. Given ethanol’s aforementioned relative inefficiency, the cost of filling up a tank with ethanol ultimately costs the same as filling it up with gasoline. So drivers of Flex Fuel vehicles, many of whom may not even know they have such a vehicle, should think twice before driving all over town looking for a filling station with ethanol.
- In many regions, too few filling stations offer e85: It’s necessary for e85 users to have a go-to filling station on or near the route of their daily commute because of its relative inefficiency. But with too few stations nationwide, driving a vehicle on e85 is even less efficient. The sprawling Houston area, for example, the sixth largest metro area in the country, has 16 stations serving e85, including surrounding towns such as Katy and Tomball. It would require lots of fuel just to find a station with ethanol.
- The U.S. is years away from gaining the capacity to become reliant on ethanol: In 2010, Americans consumed more than 138 billion gallons of gasoline. In February 2011, production capacity of ethanol in the U.S. was more than 13 billion gallons (12 billion gallons is almost equivalent to nine billion gallons of gasoline), meaning that if we were to become more dependent on it in the near future, we’d either have to make rapid strides in production or consider importing more of it — there’s currently a tariff on ethanol produced in Brazil. Although ethanol production is expected to continue to expand, land use is a real issue (as mentioned below), particularly relating to indirect land use change and its effect on grain supply.
- One bushel of corn produces 2.8 gallons of ethanol: That’s from a 56-pound bushel of corn, which also produces 18 pounds of feed for livestock and poultry and corn oil used in many human foods. The U.S. demands 4.9 billion bushels per year. Again, it would require a vast amount of resources, including land, to meet the requirement ethanol dependence would place upon us. Currently the U.S. is using 30 million acres of cropland for that purpose, fueling the food versus fuel debate.
- Ethanol can have a negative impact on food production and prices: Since roughly 2008, there has been much debate regarding ethanol’s effect on food prices. This year, the U.S. will consume 15 percent of the world’s corn supply, five percent more than three years ago when corn prices peaked. Of the corn produced in the U.S., 24 percent is mandated for ethanol production, reducing the worldwide availability of the veggie. Poor countries with citizens who spend a large portion of their daily incomes on food would be affected the most by expensive corn.
- The increased production of ethanol results in deforestation, more carbon dioxide: The increased use of land worldwide for ethanol results in the upheaval of forests and savannahs, releasing more carbon dioxide and causing the clean-burning fuel to have a minimal positive impact on the environment. In fact, a 2008 paper asserted that in the short term, ethanol could be twice as carbon-intensive as petrol. This fact is often overlooked because there’s such a strong, unified lobby for ethanol, and it has long been looked upon as the most viable clean alternative.
- The production of ethanol could negatively affect topsoil: The process by which ethanol is produced involves the growing of corn to make hybrid seeds and the subsequent planting and harvesting of them. The cycle results in the depletion of topsoil, an invaluable and irreplaceable resource needed to sustain agriculture. Although the depletion of topsoil for food purposes is inevitable, it should be preserved as much as possible. It goes without saying that food is more important than fuel.
- Ethanol produces a large water footprint: According to Environmental Science & Technology magazine, the amount of ethanol needed to fuel a vehicle for one mile is 50 gallons, a high number when you tally what’s used for an entire crop. Of course, the water use comes almost entirely during the agricultural cycle. With the expansion of irrigated agriculture in dry Western areas, many are concerned about the potential impact that would come with a major demand for ethanol.
- The production of ethanol could negatively affect water quality: Fertilizers widely used for crops in the U.S. include phosphorus, nitrogen, fungicides, herbicides, pesticides and insecticides, each of which, to some degree, is absorbed into our waterways. The highest concentrations of these chemicals are found in the Corn Belt, located in the Upper Midwest, and in the Mississippi River, contributing to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. In that area, giant algae bloom, feast on the fertilizer and consume oxygen in the water, killing sea life.