Not too long ago, corn ethanol was being touted as the energy wave of the future for fighting global warming. It was said to be much better than coal and oil, those carbon-based sources of greenhouse-gas emissions.
But lately the drawbacks to this form of energy production have become more obvious, its critics more vocal, its supporters on the defensive.
For one thing, there's evidence that the rush to produce ethanol made from corn is contributing to the recent rise in domestic food prices.
Late last week, two dozen Republican senators said they wanted to ease the congressionally mandated requirement that more ethanol be blended into the gasoline supply. Among those GOP lawmakers is presumptive presidential nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who's been critical of ethanol subsidies. A Wall Street Journal article noted that:
"The move by the Republican Senate group is the latest sign that Washington's support for turning corn into motor fuel is wavering in the face of soaring food prices, despite the popularity of ethanol subsidies in farm states critical to the November election…. There are also signs of anti-ethanol backlash at the state level. The governors of Texas and Connecticut have requested that the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] issue waivers from the mandate, arguing that the ethanol impact on food prices is too onerous."
Such concern has become global. The World Bank has estimated that corn prices rose by more than 60 percent from 2005 to 2007, largely because of the US ethanol program, combined with market forces. The United States is the world's biggest biofuel producer, overall.
Looking at the food situation more broadly, several top international food scientists have recommended that the use of food-based biofuels, including ethanol, be halted. Said the AP:
"The three senior scientists with an international research consortium pushing a biofuel moratorium said nations need to rethink programs that divert food such as corn and soybeans into fuel, given the burgeoning worldwide food crisis. The group, CGIAR, is a global network that uses science to fight hunger. It is funded by dozens of countries and private foundations.... 'We need to feed the stomach before we need to feed our cars,' said Rattan Lal, an Ohio State University soil sciences professor…. 'We have 1 billion people who are food insecure. We can't afford the luxury of not taking care of them and taking care of gasoline.' "
" 'There has been apparently some effect, unintended consequence, from the alternative fuels effort,' Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told a meeting of the Peace Corps in Washington when asked for the US government's view on the spike in world food prices."
"[Bush] said the rise in food prices has been caused by weather, increased demand and energy prices, while only a small part is due to the production of corn-based ethanol. 'And the truth of the matter is, it's in our national interest that we – our farmers – grow energy, as opposed to us purchasing energy from parts of the world that are unstable or may not like us.' "
"[A] study published in Science magazine Feb. 29 concluded that greenhouse-gas emissions from corn and even cellulosic ethanol 'exceed or match those from fossil fuels and therefore produce no greenhouse benefits.' By encouraging an expansion of acreage, the study added, the use of US cropland for ethanol could make climate conditions dramatically worse. And the runoff from increased use of fertilizers on expanded acreage would compound damage to waterways...."
A comprehensive method of study, developed by the Empa Research Institute in Switzerland, takes into account total environmental impacts, such as loss of forests and farmland and effects on biodiversity. The result is not good news for corn ethanol producers. A story in Britain's The Guardian says that:
"In a study of 26 biofuels the Swiss method showed that 21 fuels reduced greenhouse-gas emissions by more than 30 percent compared with gasoline when burned. But almost half of the biofuels, a total of 12, had greater total environmental impacts than fossil fuels. These included economically-significant fuels such as US corn ethanol, Brazilian sugar cane ethanol and soy diesel, and Malaysian palm-oil diesel. Biofuels that fared best were those produced from waste products such as recycled cooking oil, as well as ethanol from grass or wood.
These are early days in that effort, however, and the full environmental, economic, and social impact is not fully known – as was the case when corn-based ethanol first came on the scene.