The urge to be seen as doing something about our energy problems is giving rise to
legislation that has the potential for more harm than good. The ethanol amendment approved by
the Senate yesterday is a case in point.
Yesterday the U.S. Senate approved on a 70-26 vote the
href="http://energy.senate.gov/public/_files/Domenicietalethanolamendment.pdf"> Renewable Fuel
Standard Amendment to what is to become the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The amendment
requires that 4 billion gallons of the motor fuel sold in the U.S. in 2006 be blended with
renewable source fuel, rising to 8 billion gallons by 2012.
Whatever the argument in favor of such a measure, it isn’t to provide a new energy source.
Pimental of Cornell concluded that when you take into account the energy required to plant,
grow, harvest, and process the corn, 1.7 Btu of energy inputs get used up to produce 1 Btu
equivalent in ethanol; href="http://resourceinsights.blogspot.com/2005/02/biofuels-are-they-really-helping-us.html">
Resource Insights and href="http://energyoutlook.blogspot.com/2005/03/empire-of-corn-todays-wall-street.html"> Energy
Outlook have more discussion of this.
Which is not to endorse an energy theory of value, as if energy were the only wasted input
that we should be concerned about. When you add up the value of the land, labor, and capital
also used to produce that 1 Btu of ethanol, the economic loss is really quite considerable.
Even the current use of ethanol for fuel would not remotely survive without huge public subsidies already in place.
Nor does the justification for ethanol appear to be in its environmental benefits. For
example, Knowledge Problem
(also here) calls our attention to this href="http://www.arb.ca.gov/fuels/gasoline/permeation/090204finalrpt.pdf"> study for the
California Air Resources Board which concluded that ethanol produces more air pollution than
So what is the point of the amendment? Hard to come up with a good answer other than to
throw a new benefit to farmers, not to mention Archer Daniels Midland. It looks to me less like
an energy plan and more like the usual pork barrel, in this case, corn-fed pork.