The Ethanol Scam

Politicians are high on turning corn into fuel — but ethanol not only hurts the environment, it's also one of America's biggest political boondoggles

Illustration by Victor Juhasz
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The great danger of confronting peak oil and global warming isn't that we will sit on our collective asses and do nothing while civilization collapses, but that we will plunge after "solutions" that will make our problems even worse. Like believing we can replace gasoline with ethanol, the much-hyped biofuel that we make from corn.

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Ethanol, of course, is nothing new. American refiners will produce nearly 6 billion gallons of corn ethanol this year, mostly for use as a gasoline additive to make engines burn cleaner. But in June, the Senate all but announced that America's future is going to be powered by biofuels, mandating the production of 36 billion gallons of ethanol by 2022. According to ethanol boosters, this is the beginning of a much larger revolution that could entirely replace our 21-million-barrel-a-day oil addiction. Midwest farmers will get rich, the air will be cleaner, the planet will be cooler, and, best of all, we can tell those greedy sheiks to fuck off. As the king of ethanol hype, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, put it recently, "Everything about ethanol is good, good, good."

This article appeared in the August 7, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

This is not just hype — it's dangerous, delusional bullshit. Ethanol doesn't burn cleaner than gasoline, nor is it cheaper. Our current ethanol production represents only 3.5 percent of our gasoline consumption — yet it consumes twenty percent of the entire U.S. corn crop, causing the price of corn to double in the last two years and raising the threat of hunger in the Third World. And the increasing acreage devoted to corn for ethanol means less land for other staple crops, giving farmers in South America an incentive to carve fields out of tropical forests that help to cool the planet and stave off global warming.

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So why bother? Because the whole point of corn ethanol is not to solve America's energy crisis, but to generate one of the great political boondoggles of our time. Corn is already the most subsidized crop in America, raking in a total of $51 billion in federal handouts between 1995 and 2005 — twice as much as wheat subsidies and four times as much as soybeans. Ethanol itself is propped up by hefty subsidies, including a fifty-one-cent-per-gallon tax allowance for refiners. And a study by the International Institute for Sustainable Development found that ethanol subsidies amount to as much as $1.38 per gallon — about half of ethanol's wholesale market price.

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Three factors are driving the ethanol hype. The first is panic: Many energy experts believe that the world's oil supplies have already peaked or will peak within the next decade. The second is election-year politics. With the first vote to be held in Iowa, the largest corn-producing state in the nation, former skeptics like Sens. Hillary Clinton and John McCain now pay tribute to the wonders of ethanol. Earlier this year, Sen. Barack Obama pleased his agricultural backers in Illinois by co-authoring legislation to raise production of biofuels to 60 billion gallons by 2030. A few weeks later, rival Democrat John Edwards, who is staking his campaign on a victory in the Iowa caucus, upped the ante to 65 billion gallons by 2025.

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The third factor stoking the ethanol frenzy is the war in Iraq, which has made energy independence a universal political slogan. Unlike coal, another heavily subsidized energy source, ethanol has the added political benefit of elevating the American farmer to national hero. As former CIA director James Woolsey, an outspoken ethanol evangelist, puts it, "American farmers, by making the commitment to grow more corn for ethanol, are at the top of the spear on the war against terrorism." If you love America, how can you not love ethanol?

Ethanol is nothing more than 180-proof grain alcohol. To avoid the prospect of drunks sucking on gas pumps, fuel ethanol is "denatured" with chemical additives (if you drink it, you'll end up dead or, at best, in the hospital). It can be distilled from a variety of plants, including sugar cane and switch- grass. Most vehicles can't run on pure ethanol, but E85, a mix of eighty-five percent ethanol and fifteen percent gasoline, requires only slight engine modifications.

But as a gasoline substitute, ethanol has big problems: Its energy density is one-third less than gasoline, which means you have to burn more of it to get the same amount of power. It also has a nasty tendency to absorb water, so it can't be transported in existing pipelines and must be distributed by truck or rail, which is tremendously inefficient.

Nor is all ethanol created equal. In Brazil, ethanol made from sugar cane has an energy balance of 8-to-1 — that is, when you add up the fossil fuels used to irrigate, fertilize, grow, transport and refine sugar cane into ethanol, the energy output is eight times higher than the energy inputs. That's a better deal than gasoline, which has an energy balance of 5-to-1. In contrast, the energy balance of corn ethanol is only 1.3-to-1 — making it practically worthless as an energy source. "Corn ethanol is essentially a way of recycling natural gas," says Robert Rapier, an oil-industry engineer who runs the R-Squared Energy Blog.

The ethanol boondoggle is largely a tribute to the political muscle of a single company: agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland. In the 1970s, looking for new ways to profit from corn, ADM began pushing ethanol as a fuel additive. By the early 1980s, ADM was producing 175 million gallons of ethanol a year. The company's then-chairman, Dwayne Andreas, struck up a close relationship with Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, a.k.a. "Senator Ethanol." During the 1992 election, ADM gave $1 million to Dole and his friends in the GOP (compared with $455,000 to the Democrats). In return, Dole helped the company secure billions of dollars in subsidies and tax breaks. In 1995, the conservative Cato Institute, estimating that nearly half of ADM's profits came from products either subsidized or protected by the federal government, called the company "the most prominent recipient of corporate welfare in recent U.S. history."

Today, ADM is the leading producer of ethanol, supplying more than 1 billion gallons of the fuel additive last year. Ethanol is propped up by more than 200 tax breaks and subsidies worth at least $5.5 billion a year. And ADM continues to give back: Since 2000, the company has contributed $3.7 million to state and federal politicians.

The Iraq War has also been a boon for ADM and other ethanol producers. The Energy Policy Act of 2005, which was pushed by Corn Belt politicians, mandated the consumption of 7.5 billion gallons of biofuels by 2012. After Democrats took over Congress last year, they too vowed to "do something" about America's addiction to foreign oil. By the time Sen. Jeff Bingaman, chair of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, proposed new energy legislation this spring, the only real question was how big the ethanol mandate would be. According to one lobbyist, 36 billion gallons became "the Goldilocks number — not too big to be impractical, not too small to satisfy corn growers."

Under the Senate bill, only 15 billion gallons of ethanol will come from corn, in part because even corn growers admit that turning more grain into fuel would disrupt global food supplies. The remaining 21 billion gallons will have to come from advanced biofuels, most of which are currently brewed only in small-scale lab experiments. "It's like trying to solve a traffic problem by mandating hovercraft," says Dave Juday, an independent commodities consultant. "Except we don't have hovercraft."

The most seductive myth about ethanol is that it will free us from our dependence on foreign oil. But even if ethanol producers manage to hit the mandate of 36 billion gallons of ethanol by 2022, that will replace a paltry 1.5 million barrels of oil per day — only seven percent of current oil needs. Even if the entire U.S. corn crop were used to make ethanol, the fuel would replace only twelve percent of current gasoline use.

Another misconception is that ethanol is green. In fact, corn production depends on huge amounts of fossil fuel — not just the diesel needed to plow fields and transport crops, but also the vast quantities of natural gas used to produce fertilizers. Runoff from industrial-scale cornfields also silts up the Mississippi River and creates a vast dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico every summer. What's more, when corn ethanol is burned in vehicles, it is as dirty as conventional gasoline and does little to solve global warming: E85 reduces carbon dioxide emissions by a modest fifteen percent at best, while fueling the destruction of tropical forests.

But the biggest problem with ethanol is that it steals vast swaths of land that might be better used for growing food. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs titled "How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor," University of Minnesota economists C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer point out that filling the gas tank of an SUV with pure ethanol requires more than 450 pounds of corn — roughly enough calories to feed one person for a year.

Thanks in large part to the ethanol craze, the price of beef, poultry and pork in the United States rose more than three percent during the first five months of this year. In some parts of the country, hog farmers now find it cheaper to fatten their animals on trail mix, french fries and chocolate bars. And since America provides two-thirds of all global corn exports, the impact is being felt around the world. In Mexico, tortilla prices have jumped sixty percent, leading to food riots. In Europe, butter prices have spiked forty percent, and pork prices in China are up twenty percent. By 2025, according to Runge and Senauer, rising food prices caused by the demand for ethanol and other biofuels could cause as many as 600 million more people to go hungry worldwide.

Despite the serious drawbacks of ethanol, some technological visionaries believe that the fuel can be done right. "Corn ethanol is just a platform, the first step in a much larger transition we are undergoing from a hydrocarbon-based economy to a carbohydrate-based economy," says Vinod Khosla, a pioneering venture capitalist in Silicon Valley. Next-generation corn- ethanol plants, he argues, will be much more efficient and environmentally friendly. He points to a company called E3 BioFuels that just opened an ethanol plant in Mead, Nebraska. The facility runs largely on biogas made from cow manure, and feeds leftover grain back to the cows, making it a "closed-loop system" — one that requires very few fossil fuels to create ethanol.

Khosla is even higher on the prospects for cellulosic ethanol, a biofuel that can be made from almost any plant matter, including wood waste and perennial grasses like miscanthus and switchgrass. Like other high-tech ethanol evangelists, Khosla imagines a future in which such so-called "energy crops" are fed into giant refineries that use genetically engineered enzymes to break down the cellulose in plants and create fuel for a fraction of the cost of today's gasoline. Among other virtues, cellulosic ethanol would not cut into the global food supply (nobody eats miscanthus or switchgrass), and it could significantly cut global-warming pollution. Even more important, it could provide a gateway to a much larger biotech revolution, including synthetic microbes that could one day be engineered to gobble up carbon dioxide or other pollutants.

Unfortunately, no commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants exist today. In one venture backed by Khosla, a $225 million plant in central Georgia is currently being built to make ethanol out of wood chips. Mitch Mandich, a former Apple Computer executive who is now the CEO of the operation, calls it "the beginning of a real transformation in the way we think about energy in America."

Maybe. But oil-industry engineer Robert Rapier, who has spent years studying cellulosic ethanol, says that the difference between ethanol from corn and ethanol from cellulose is "like the difference between traveling to the moon and traveling to Mars." And even if the engineering hurdles can be overcome, there's still the problem of land use: According to Rapier, replacing fifty percent of our current gasoline consumption with cellulosic ethanol would consume thirteen percent of the land in the United States - about seven times the land currently utilized for corn production.

Increasing the production of cellulosic ethanol will also require solving huge logistical problems, including delivering vast quantities of feedstock to production plants. According to one plant manager in the Midwest, fueling an ethanol plant with switchgrass would require delivering a semi-truckload of the grass every six minutes, twenty-four hours a day. Finally, there is the challenge of wrestling the future away from Big Corn. "It's pretty clear to me that the corn guys will use all their lobbying muscle and political power to stall, thwart and sidetrack this revolution," says economist C. Ford Runge.

In the end, the ethanol boom is another manifestation of America's blind faith that technology will solve all our problems. Thirty years ago, nuclear power was the answer. Then it was hydrogen. Biofuels may work out better, especially if mandates are coupled with tough caps on greenhouse-gas emissions. Still, biofuels are, at best, a huge gamble. They may help cushion the fall when cheap oil vanishes, but if we rely on ethanol to save the day, we could soon find ourselves forced to make a choice between feeding our SUVs and feeding children in the Third World. And we all know how that decision will go.

From The Archives Issue 1032: August 9, 2007