Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Corn ethanol -- a wolf in sheep's clothing

Photo by Petr Kratochvil

You pull up to the gas station and fill up with gasoline that's labeled 10% ethanol. Feels pretty good, doesn't it? Hey, that's 10% less foreign fuel you're using, and it's the environmentally-friendly choice. That's gotta count for something, right?

Well, not exactly. If you really care about the environment, you should steer clear of ethanol completely. Why is that?

Well, 40% of the U.S. corn crop is currently being used to produce ethanol. This is causing a whole slew of environmental costs, not to mention harmful consequences. Prior to this demand for ethanol, U.S. corn acreage was at about 80 million acres. Now, it's 92 million plus, which is startling, considering that acreage used to be available for other crops or is in areas in western Nebraska and South Dakota that have been suffering from drought conditions. Since the corn yields have not been meeting the demands, other options had to be viewed and utilized. Options such as draining wetlands (talk about messing up the eco-system), plowing down pastures, transforming grassed waterways into corn fields, and more. The demand is higher than common sense allows. The sad thing is, it's not about feeding the poor, it's about gassing up our vehicles. 

Think about the wildlife habitats that are being destroyed. Think about water conservation and soil conservation. If you understand anything about farming, you know how important crop rotations are for the soil. However, since the ethanol explosion, the annual rotations of crops such as wheat and soybeans have ceased. I'm asking you to think about these things, because apparently the growers involved in this travesty do not. 

They didn't give any of this a second thought. That is, until the news started broadcasting about water pollution and soil erosion. Consider this: it is estimated that U.S. municipalities spend nearly 5 billion dollars annually to remove nitrates from drinking water supplies; $1.7 billion of that is because of the runoff from agricultural fertilizers. It's starting to look like a not-so-environmentally-friendly option now, isn't it?

Now, let's take it a step further into the dark side of ethanol production. Currently, there are many experts who believe ethanol production may actually emit more greenhouse gases than gasoline. Imagine that! And... according to the National Research Council, producing corn ethanol uses significantly more water than gasoline production! Yeah, that'll help the drought conditions nationwide.

Aside from the environmental nightmare caused by ethanol production, there is also the horror of rising prices at the grocery store. What is the connection? Well, two out of every five bushels of corn farmers are growing is being diverted to ethanol production. Much of this is corn we would readily have available for food production. Not only are we forking out more food for our groceries, but, as taxpayers, we are also subsidizing the oil and gas companies as much as $6 billion a year. For what? For the blending of ethanol with gasoline.

My husband bought a flex fuel car, recently selling it to our youngest daughter. Flex fuel quite simply means that you can fill the car with 85% ethanol. While the E85 may be cheaper, therefore a seeming bargain, the facts are that the vehicle will average 27% lower gas mileage than with regular gasoline. Hmm.

One more thing to consider is that corn ethanol has done little to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. As it turns out, it has only displace about 3% - 4% of imported gasoline.

You will notice that most fuel in the U.S. is E10. That means it's a mix of 90% gasoline and 10% ethanol. However, under the federal Clean Air Act, the EPA approved the sale of E15 for vehicles manufactured in 2001 or later. Herein lies more problems. For one thing, every major car maker states that using E15 in their vehicles could nullify the manufacturer warranty. And because the E15 blend runs hotter than pure gasoline, and is known to be more corrosive, it can severely damage older engines, gas-powered motors and lawn equipment. That means more junk in the landfill and more of a dent in consumers' pockets. Why? Because of a misleading campaign of an environmentally-friendly option that is simply a wolf in sheep's clothing.

Who is behind the fight against corn ethanol? Concerned consumers, environmental groups, livestock farmers, car manufacturers, the anti-hunger community and the food industry. Phew. That seems like a lot of shepherds trying to protect the flock. But that wolf is mighty crafty.

Information obtained from the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

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