Good news: President Bush and Congress have found an energy policy they can agree on.
Bad news: They both want to expand the use of ethanol.
This week, in fact, President Bush has been busy pushing corn. On Tuesday, he and Energy Secretary Sam Bodman visited the U.S. Postal Service Vehicle Maintenance Facility to see a demonstration of some alternative-fuel trucks. The day before, the president met with Detroit automakers, who urged him to improve consumer access to ethanol.
This mutual enthusiasm for the corn-based fuel may be good for the political environment, but not for the physical one. A new paper by The Heritage Foundation’s Ben Lieberman road-tests the latest boondoggle from Washington and finds that its earth-friendly claims are seriously overblown. So, too, is the notion that using more ethanol reduces oil imports and lowers prices at the pump. Worse, increased ethanol use drives up other consumer costs.
Well, you may ask, does anyone stand to benefit? Sure, Lieberman says: corn farmers and ethanol producers.
The jump in ethanol use certainly didn’t come about because of a groundswell of popular demand; it came about, like so many bad ideas, because of a government mandate. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 required that 4 billion gallons of renewable fuel (mostly ethanol) be added to the gasoline supply last year. It goes up to 4.7 billion this year and to 7.5 billion in 2012. But ethanol lowers fuel economy -- according to the Department of Energy, a gallon of ethanol contains only two-thirds the energy content of a gallon of gasoline.
And you’re actually paying more for less performance. It’s difficult, Lieberman notes, to transport ethanol from its Midwestern home base to far-off markets, and that adds to the price you pay at the pump. Ethanol can’t be sent in an energy-efficient way through pipelines like gasoline can, because it would be contaminated by moisture along the way. Ethanol must be shipped instead by trucks, barges and railroads.
And that brings us to ethanol’s environmental impact. After all, shipping by truck, barge or rail uses … well, fossil fuels. So the more ethanol we move, the more fossil fuel we use -- which, Al Gore and Company tell us repeatedly, spews the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. In addition, all that extra corn farming means more fertilizer and pesticide use, along with increased irrigation. More diesel fuel will be needed to run the tractors and the harvesters.