Corn for Ethanol: Serious Concerns


(This 851st Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on July 15, 2007.)


There is no question that this country needs to find alternatives to our reliance on Mid-East oil.


One alternative currently being supported by Senators Clinton and Schumer, local legislators and President Bush is ethanol. We now have two production facilities being planned for this region: one in Buffalo, the other in the Orleans County Town of Shelby. The Buffalo facility has received support from the city's Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals and Common Council.


But serious questions have not been addressed in this rush to build. For example, at the session in Buffalo's First Ward that rapidly devolved into a shouting match, I felt that the wrong questions were raised and I am left with both national and local concerns.


Professor David Pimentel of Cornell's College of Agricultural and Life Sciences together with University of California engineering professor Tad Patzek and North Carolina University physicist Gerald Cecil, have summarized these national issues. Even the title of their recent paper is threatening: "Ethanol Production: Energy, Economic and Environmental Losses."


According to the Pimentel study, the most efficient processing plants produce 2.5 gallons of ethanol from each bushel of corn. To produce that corn, however, much energy must be supplied, in the form of such things as labor, farm machinery, fertilizers and pesticides, as well as in some areas irrigation. In energy those requirements call for the equivalent of 91 gallons of oil per acre of corn production.


To this energy cost must be added the energy required to produce ethanol from the harvested corn, energy that must be provided in the form of electricity or steam. Pimentel's calculations indicate that the resulting product, even when byproducts are recycled, requires an input of 28% more energy than the energy it produces. In other words to make a gallon of ethanol the equivalent of more than a gallon of oil must be expended. Pimentel does suggest that the 28% could be reduced through cogeneration or solar power but clearly we are far from saving oil by producing ethanol.


And remember that every acre of corn for ethanol takes that acre out of food production, certainly not a timely prospect. Over the past decade the Earth's cropland was reduced by 20% and U.S. grain exports tripled. With over 800,000 people underfed worldwide, this seems an inappropriate time to cut into our grain production. Agricultural economist Lester Brown points out that the corn that would supply just one 25 gallon fill-up for an SUV would feed an individual for a year.


The Washington Post has recently reported that a result of turning corn to ethanol is already being felt in Mexico. The cost there of tortillas, a national corn-based food staple, has tripled.


Okay, so you don't care about the rest of the world. There are also selfish concerns. Currently our country is contributing billions of dollars to support the ethanol industry, little of it going to farmers. Pimentel's analysis indicates that, factoring in those support funds which eventually we pay in taxes, the true cost of ethanol is $4.58 per gallon. And that's before profits and taxes.


Your food costs are also affected. Today, given the financial realities, corn is worth more for ethanol than it is as a food product. This will not only affect the price of corn in your market. It will raise even more the price of chicken, pork, beef and milk. (Have you noticed the price of bagels recently?)


Equally threatening is the use of water. Counting both corn production and the fermentation process, hundreds of gallons of water are required to produce a gallon of ethanol. In the production process itself that ethanol gallon produces 13 gallons of waste water. And finally about 5 gallons are lost to evaporation.


For a typical ethanol plant that would mean over a million gallons of water lost per day. At a time when we have global warming projections of a drop in Great Lakes water levels of between one and two yards in the years ahead, such a loss should be considered significant.


We need answers to these concerns.-- Gerry Rising