By Dan Shapley
In a new report released at noon today, three environmental and research organizations raise serious questions about the future of corn ethanol, a fuel that Congress has invested subsidies in already, and which is often viewed as a silver bullet solution to the nation's energy and environmental problems.
Corn-based ethanol would, contrary to that belief, add pollution and contribute to other environmental problems -- including the Gulf of Mexico dead zone that a separate report released yesterday showed could reach its largest size ever, due in part to the record acreage of corn planted in the Midwest this year, and the attendant runoff of fertilizer.
The The Rush to Ethanol was released by Food & Water Watch, the Network for New Energy Choices and the Vermont Law School Environmental Law Center.
The key findings from the report, as defined by the groups releasing it:
- Not all bio-fuels are equal. Corn, which is the source of 95% of ethanol in the U.S., is among the least efficient, least sustainable biofuels. Cellulosic ethanol, while not yet ready for market, has more favorable energy ratios than corn and presents more room for productivity gains, making it appealing to investors, farmers and refiners. Yet, most biofuels policies being debated in Congress would primarily benefit corn ethanol refiners in the near future.
- Corn ethanol has little promise of reducing U.S. fossil fuel emissions. Even if the entire U.S. corn crop was dedicated to ethanol, it would displace less than 15 percent of national gasoline use. But a modest increase in auto fuel efficiency standards, such as those passed by the Senate last month, would cut petroleum consumption by more than all alternative fuels and replacement fuels combined.
- The current path of corn-ethanol based biofuels is unsustainable. Using coal to power ethanol refineries can increase emissions in comparison to the gasoline fuel replaced. And since corn production uses more than twice the amount of pesticides than any other major U.S. crop, uncontrolled ethanol industry growth could exponentially increase environmental toxins.
- Even large-scale development of cellulosic ethanol is plagued by potential environmental problems. Turning cellulose into fuel, for instance, would require a huge expenditure of increasingly scarce water resources and the mass production of cellulosic ethanol would likely impact soil quality and convert land currently in conservation programs.
- Ethanol is not the solution to revitalizing rural America. While higher commodity prices and cooperatively owned ethanol refineries could be a boon to independent farmers, unregulated ethanol industry growth will further concentrate agribusiness, threatening the livelihood of rural communities.