For what? We have known for years that ethanol, like other “poster child” renewables that were supposed to end our dependence on oil, is not all that and a bag of corn chips. More recently, we’ve learned its effect is even worse than we thought and that, as the OECD reports, “the cure [may be] worse than the disease.”
Producing biofuels leaves a huge ecological footprint, exceeding that of fossil fuels. The recent OECD report finds, “When…soil acidification, fertilizer use, biodiversity loss, and toxicity of agricultural pesticides are taken into account, the overall environmental impacts of ethanol and biofuels can very easily exceed those of petrol and mineral diesel.”
Similarly, nitrous oxide released in the production of biofuels actually increases greenhouse gas emissions—about twice as much as previously thought—and, according to Nobel Laureate scientist Paul Crutzen, is likely contributing to global warming.
Moreover, ethanol requires enormous quantities of water, a valuable resource already in short supply in many areas of the nation. Producing one gallon of ethanol fuel, including the water needed to grow corn, requires an astonishing 1,700 gallons of water, according to Cornell University ecology professor David Pimentel.
As the New York Times recently summarized in an editorial on biofuel: “What’s wrong is letting politics—the kind that leads to unnecessary subsidies, the invasion of natural landscapes…and soaring food prices that hurt the poor—rather than sound science and sound economics drive America’s energy policy.”
Yet Washington remains fixated on biofuels, ironically furthering our dependence on foreign oil. Government’s selection of ethanol as the chosen source of fuel discourages refiners from expanding capacity. Since ethanol can’t come close to meeting U.S. demand for fuel—turning our entire corn crop to fuel production would only replace 12 percent of our current gasoline consumption—we dangerously risk increasing our reliance on imports.
None of this will matter, of course, when Congress returns to business on the energy bill. As is the way of the world in the nation’s capital, the powerful agribusiness and ethanol interests will trump science, and Congress will turn a blind eye to the poor’s struggle against soaring food prices.