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Ethanol

01/08/08 7:55AM By Bill Mares
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(HOST) Commentator Bill Mares has studied lots of complicated topics as a writer, former teacher, and legislator - but he says that sorting out the pros and cons of ethanol production is turning out to be more of a challenge than he expected.

(MARES) I've been trying to get my head around the ethanol or corn-as-fuel question, and it's giving me a first-class headache.

As a patriotic American, shouldn't I support any program that reduces our dependence on foreign oil controlled by ratty people like Hugo Chavez of Venezuela? By one optimistic estimate, if we put all our corn into fuel we could replace one quarter of our imported oil!

Shouldn't I rejoice that generous federal subsidies (my tax dollars) of 51 cents per gallon will spur the construction of scores more ethanol refineries across the country, adding jobs and wealth to local America?

Shouldn't I be happy that long-time subsidy skeptics Hillary Clinton and John McCain now agree on the need for such investment in the cause of energy independence?

And as a Prius-driving environmentalist, don't I want further to reduce consumption of fossil fuels and support these plucky Midwestern efforts to cut global warming? Well, sure! But then suspicions, like methane-rich swamp gas, begin to waft into my nostrils. Maybe proponents of this new fuel suffer from what former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan called an "irrational exuberance?"

Using a life-cycle energy analysis, when you take all the money spent on the energy used in to produce ethanol - that is: to build the machinery, make the fertilizer, run the tractors, transport the corn, burn the corn, transport the wastes... the net energy gain is only about 15%.

Then - just maybe - Clinton and McCain didn't so much take the high-road of subsidies as the low road of electioneering as they pandered to voters in Iowa, which just happens to grow the most corn in the nation.

This head-long rush to use food for fuel starts to smack of destroying the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge to drill for a mere half-year's consumption of oil. According to Robbin Johnson, a former vice-president at Cargill Grain Company, and University of Minnesota Professor C. Ford Runge, even if the entire U.S. corn crop were used to make ethanol, it would reduce gasoline usage less than raising fleet fuel economy standards five miles per gallon, something readily achievable with existing technologies.

Now consider how this ethanol craze has helped drive up world prices for corn and other food grains like wheat and barley.

The Economist magazine points out that while we spent about ten percent of our income on food, in the poorest countries it can be more than 50%. Last year, Mexicans rioted over the doubling in price of their corn-based tortillas. For them, tortillas are staples, not snack food.

To me, it's not just ironic that our proclaimed environmentalism on fossil fuels replacement could speed starvation for the world's poor and further damage the world's eco-systems... it's immoral.

For more commentaries by Bill Mares, go to VPR-dot-net.
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