Aug. 9, 2006 – Prompted by climbing gas prices and mandates to promote alternative fuels, Washington is pouring public money into ethanol production. But watchdogs and environmentalists fear that corporate and political agendas are eclipsing environmental concerns in a headlong rush for â€œgreenâ€� energy.
While they acknowledge its potential as a renewable â€œbiofuel,â€� skeptics say that banking on ethanol in its current form is environmentally and economically unsustainable, threatening to squander over $1 billion in tax incentives that Congress has recently lavished on the industry.
An alternative fuel derived mainly from corn, ethanol currently constitutes only a miniscule fraction of the countryâ€™s fuel supply, but domestic production capacity has more than doubled since 2001, to over 4.5 billion gallons per year. About 100 production plants or â€œbiorefineriesâ€� now dot the country, according to the trade group Renewable Fuels Association (RFA). Production is likely to soar over the next several years, since the Energy Policy Act of 2005 set a Renewable Fuels Standard mandating 7.5 billion gallons of annual domestic renewable-fuel production by 2012.
Though touted as a green fuel, gasolineâ€™s carbohydrate-based surrogate brings its own unique challenges, both ecological and political.
In a statement issued Monday, RFA President Bob Dinneen celebrated the one-year anniversary of the Actâ€™s signing. Dineen said that while ethanol alone would not completely eliminate the need for oil, the industry is â€œuniquely positioned to lessen our dependence on foreign oil today and to replace most of our imports in the future.â€� He added that ethanol is â€œproviding economic revitalization in rural communities across the country.â€�
Yet gasolineâ€™s carbohydrate-based surrogate brings its own unique challenges, both ecological and political.
In a 2005 study, Cornell University agricultural ecologist David Pimentel calculated that the process of producing corn-based ethanol, including harvesting the grain and converting it into liquid fuel, requires significant fossil-fuel inputs, which ultimately exceed the amount of energy generated.
Compared to petroleum fuel, producing and using corn-based ethanol results in only about a 13-percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions.
â€œWeâ€™re importing oil from Saudi Arabia to produce ethanol in the US at a net energy loss,â€� Pimentel told The NewStandard.
Researchers at the University of Californiaâ€“Berkeleyâ€™s Energy and Resources Group have published a study challenging Pimentelâ€™s conclusions, arguing that his analysis was based on obsolete data and miscalculated key energy values. But even the rosier figures, which show a net energy gain for ethanol, cast doubt on corn-based ethanolâ€™s long-term viability.
The studyâ€™s author, Alex Farrell, found that compared to petroleum fuel, producing and using corn-based ethanol results in only about a 13-percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions, because the production process itself generates pollution that offsets the benefits of cutting gasoline use.
Farrellâ€™s analysis did not directly factor in the negative impacts of soil degradation from growing the crops.
Even a full-throttle shift to ethanol would probably barely dent the countryâ€™s oil dependence.
Biorefineries, including many powered by coal, have also come under fire for polluting practices. In 2003 and 2005, the agribusiness giants Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill negotiated legal settlements with the federal government involving ethanol facilities across the country, which were emitting toxic chemicals in violation of the Clean Air Act. In January, the advocacy group Iowa Environmental Council reported that ethanol plants have released unusually high levels of dissolved solids and chloride into the stateâ€™s waterways.
Some scientists and environmental groups have noted ethical challenges in deciding the best use of natural resources. Dedicating more land to ethanol crops would squeeze the supply of land for food production, for example. Government-sponsored efforts to cull forest lands for â€œbiomassâ€� fuel stocks could deplete habitats, in addition to posing unfeasible economic costs.
And yet, even a full-throttle shift to ethanol production would barely dent the countryâ€™s oil dependence, leading some critics to question ethanol as a public investment. According to federal data, less than one-fifth of the countryâ€™s corn is now used to produce ethanol, which in turn contributes a tiny percentage of the countryâ€™s fuel consumption.
Farrell and Pimentel both extrapolated that even devoting all of the countryâ€™s corn cropland to ethanol would â€œdisplaceâ€� only about six percent of Americaâ€™s current petroleum demand, which continues to rise steadily.
Many environmentalists see more promise in cellulosic ethanol, which can be extracted from vegetation, wood products and some waste materials. Existing research indicates that cellulosic ethanol, which has not yet reached mainstream markets, would generally produce fewer greenhouse-gas emissions than its corn counterpart while consuming less cropland. The Department of Energy estimates that the countryâ€™s lands contain the equivalent of about 30 percent of the countryâ€™s petroleum demand in â€œbiomassâ€� resources that could be turned into fuel.
Farrell said that cellulosic-ethanol production might reduce the need for fossil-fuel inputs by running on its own waste residues. However, he said that it could be years before cellulosic ethanol begins to share the market with its corn-based cousin.
Though the Energy Policy Act offers production incentives for cellulosic ethanol, Farrell said the political momentum for less-polluting biofuel still lags. â€œOfficially, the US government doesnâ€™t really care that much about [greenhouse-gas emissions]; we donâ€™t have any policies,â€� he commented. â€œIf that changesâ€¦ then that would improve the likelihood that cellulosic would have an advantage over corn ethanol.â€�
Worried that the movement toward renewables could stagnate in a corn-ethanol rut, groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists and Friends of the Earth say that government incentives for ethanol should be tied to standards that would require producers to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
Yet environmentalists caution that corn-based ethanol is only a â€œbridge fuelâ€� and should not detract from the long-range efforts to develop wind and solar power. They also promote more basic, common-sense measures to relieve the countryâ€™s energy crisis, including policies that invest in public mass transit and energy-conservation plans for communities.
â€œ[We] canâ€™t afford just to look at ethanol, because weâ€™re not just going to grow our way out of oil dependence,â€� said Don Mackenzie, a vehicles engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists. â€œWe need to get a whole lot smarter about how we use our fuels.â€�
Some watchdog groups say ethanolâ€™s political popularity has less to do with its ecological merits than with the influence of well-moneyed agribusiness interests on Capitol Hill. The agribusiness sector has funneled more than $190 million into federal election campaigns since the 2000 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a clearinghouse on political donations.
In July, Public Citizen called on government administrators to press ethanol producers to fully comply with lobbying disclosure rules. The watchdog group alleged that Archer Daniels Midland, which churns out about one-fifth of the countryâ€™s ethanol supply, has violated the Lobbying Disclosure Act by failing to report its extensive public-relations work as lobbying activity. In a written statement to TNS, the corporation denied any wrongdoing but conceded that it â€œhas begun an expanded presence in Washington and [is] taking incremental steps toward increased government relations activities.â€�
Public Citizen also found that lobbying records of the Renewable Fuels Association, which represents Archer Daniels Midland and other ethanol producers, reveal a discrepancy of some $1.2 million in unreported third-party lobbying efforts since 1999.
â€œWhoever has the most powerful lobby, whoever gives the most campaign contributions â€“ their version of policy is what gets implemented,â€� said Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizenâ€™s energy program. â€œAnd thatâ€™s why the ethanol lobby is front and center on the alternative-fuel path.â€�