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Answering Ethanol Attacks That ‘Just Ain’t So’

December 9, 2010


These days, it seems that, whenever politicians, pundits or self-styled policy experts want to prove how brave and brilliant they are, they take a shot at American ethanol. To hear them tell it, American ethanol is soaking up federal funds that would be better invested in other renewable energy sources. To hear them tell it, American ethanol does not replace oil imports, consumes more energy than it produces, raises food prices, and actually hurts the environment. None of these attacks are true. In fact, ethanol's critics call to mind Will Rogers' famous saying: ""It's not what people don't know that hurts them. It's what they do know that just ain't so." The next time, you see someone saying things about ethanol "that just ain't so," here's how you can answer their attacks with five facts. Fact #1: American ethanol is the only alternative to imported oil. America should invest in wind power, solar power, and other alternative energy sources. But they can't fuel almost all cars and trucks. Fact #2: Ethanol offers lots more energy than it takes to produce. In fact, an analysis released by the US Department of Agriculture in June 2010 concluded that one unit of fossil energy used in the corn ethanol production process results in 2.3 units of energy in the form of ethanol. In fact, producing gasoline takes much more petroleum than producing ethanol.  Researchers at the Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory found that it takes 1.23 units of fossil energy to produce one unit of energy in the form of gasoline. In other words, it's gasoline—not ethanol—that has the negative energy balance. Fact #3: Of course, American ethanol reduces demand for imported oil. Every 100 million gallons of US ethanol eliminates 3.5 million barrels of crude oil imports. This year, ethanol production is likely to approach 13 billion gallons. This will reduce the demand for imported oil by about 455 million barrels. That's about as much oil as we import from Venezuela every year. Fact #4: Ethanol has little impact, if any, on consumer food prices. As a study in 2008 by the US Departments of Energy and Agriculture concluded: "...current biofuels-related feedstock demand plays only a small role in global food supply and pricing." More recently, the World Bank found "...the effect of biofuels on food prices has not been as large as originally thought ..." That's why, while the US is producing record amounts of ethanol, food inflation is at its lowest level in 18 years. Fact #5: Clean-burning American ethanol is good for the environment. In fact, a recent study published in Yale University's Journal of Industrial Ecology found that greenhouse gas emissions from ethanol are "...equivalent to a 48% to 59% reduction compared to gasoline, a twofold to threefold greater reduction than reported in previous studies." Because even the best journalists can get things wrong, the New Yorker magazine has a team of fact-checkers. Armed with this information, you, too, can fact-check your local newspaper, radio talk shows, and smart-alecks everywhere.