The Campaign Spot

The Hidden Costs of Ethanol, and Obama’s Careful Skepticism on Corn-Based Fuel

The Christian Science Monitor reports on the hidden costs of ethanol.

It reminded me that a little while back, after Barack Obama’s big Detroit speech on cars, fuel,and energy, I contacted his campaign, and they put me in touch with an environmental policy analyst familiar with the Senator’s thinking on these issues. To his credit, the Obama campaign sees the downside of ethanol.
In his speech, Obama proposed requiring “petroleum makers to reduce the carbon content of their fuel mix one percent per year by selling more clean, alternative fuels in its place.” I asked this policy analyst his, and Obama’s, response to the argument that ethanol and other biofuels actually create more greenhouse gases because it takes more energy to convert the corn into a fuel that can run a car than to refine oil into petroleum.
A recent MIT study found,

“If co-product credits [a reference to what else is generated in the process of making ethanol] are not included, using ethanol does not show any significant [greenhouse gas] emission benefit. When looking at ethanol gasoline fuel blends on a per-km-traveled basis, greenhouse gas emissions increase with fuel ethanol percentage above conventional gasoline greenhouse gas emissions.”

“There’s a reason why Obama’s approach of an overall low-carbon fuel requirement is a much more robust solution than the current approach to date, which has been ethanol mandates,” the analyst said. “Our sense is that a national average, using corn ethanol, is about 15 percent better. If you have a truly inefficient farm that uses old tractors and a crappy coal-fired ethanol facility to convert it to petroleum, then yes, it’s possible that there’s no benefit or you even use more energy. It’s not out of the question, and there’s been a lot of heated up rhetoric that ethanol is the answer to our prayers.”
Obama’s analyst suggests this is why the proposal would allow fuel producers to use anything that reduces the carbon footprint. For example, to meet the one percent reduction requirement in the first year, a fuel producer would need six percent of its volume to be 15 percent cleaner. By using a fuel source with a greatly reduced carbon output like switchgrass, or “a fancy second generation ethanol,” the producer wouldn’t have to change much more than one percent of its volume. He notes that this would discourage use of some high-carbon-output alternative fuels, like tar sands and coal-to-liquid-gas, because they actually put out more carbon than regular gasoline.
“Just about anything good for climate change is also good for the nation’s energy security [reducing national dependence on foreign energy sources],” the analyst notes. “The inverse is not necessarily true. Coal-to-diesel is good for energy security, but quite problematic from a climate change standpoint.”
“The transition from a straight ethanol mandate creates some option space,” the analyst said. “He’s not dictating any particular type of fuel; the ethanol mandate at the moment is a corn mandate… we’re going to have to move through corn to non-food based alternatives.”
Cheerleading for corn-based ethanol is one of the easiest ways for presidential candidates to score points, as it’s applauded by big agriculture, Gulfstream environmentalists who presume anything is better than regular oil-based petroleum, and Iowa caucusgoers. The facts that it might end up using more energy, produce more greenhouse gases, and make food more expensive for those who can least afford it are, as some mansion-owning environmentalists might say, some inconvenient truths.

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