Ethanol–The Cause of All Our Woes?

Ethanol has been in the news a lot lately.  There’s a lot of hype surrounding this stuff, but there’s a lot that, it seems, the news has left out.  It’s an alcohol derived mainly from corn, and it’s predicted that it will someday soon become our primary fuel source for cars. 

This “fuel of the future” does have it’s good points.  Afterall, if it didn’t, America wouldn’t be so excited about it.  First of all, the primary reason that it is so popular is that it is a renewable energy source.  Since it’s derived from corn and other cereal grains, it can be produced in mass quantities without having to worry about running out.  Also, it’s supposed to be a cleaner burning fuel than gasoline.  And finally, it has really stimulated the corn producing industry in America.

So, what could be the downside of such a seemingly great alternative to gasoline?

That’s exactly what I asked myself about a week ago when I heard that the local evening news was going to talk about the pitfalls of ethanol use in cars.  That’s when I found out that, at least in my area of the country, ethanol is mixed with gasoline and sold at the pump.  It’s used sort of as a filler–usually making up about 10% of the gasoline mixture.  This mixture is called E 10 or “gasahol.”  This mixture is supposedly better for our environment.  Sure, we want to be good stewards of the environment, but is supporting ethanol REALLY being a good steward?

There’s one small little problem with this alternative fuel.  With ethanol, you can get significantly lower gas mileage.  Typically, we have been filling up at the cheapest gas station around, which happens to be in the parking lot of the big blue mart.  But just a block away, gas is selling for a good $.10 more per gallon.  Yet people are still lining up to get gas there.  My husband and I could never understand.  And then we found out that big blue mart was selling E 10 and the other gas station was selling pure gasoline.  So we did a little math….

When we used pure gasoline, my husband’s car got a little over 30 mpg, combining city and highway driving.  But last night, we checked it out, and he was only getting 25 with E 10 gasoline.  My husband has a 14 gallon tank, which means that over a course of a tank of gas, he was able to drive 70 fewer miles.  At 70 miles, that means that he would have had to consume 2.8 fewer gallons of gasoline.  Right now, in Oklahoma, 2.8 gallons of gas will cost you about $10.50.  If we had gone to the “expensive” gas station to get 100% gasoline, we would have “spent” $1.40 more than going to the cheap gas station.  But in the end, by switching to the expensive gas station, we will ultimately be saving over $10 a fill up!

So, are you still with me?  If you are, the conclusion is that for us, it is definitely better to find a good 100% gasoline gas station.  It’ll save us a lot of money!

The other problem I have with ethanol is that it has caused the farming industry to become very one-sided.  Producing corn to make ethanol is a big business, so a lot of corn producers are selling their goods exclusively to ethanol producers.  And farmers who have typically grown things like rice, wheat, etc. are switching to the more profitable corn.  So, what does this mean for us?  It’s pretty obvious, but I will go ahead and tell you.

It means that the price of just about every kind of food has gone up.  Corn is super expensive.  Wheat prices have gone up as wheat farmers have become more scarce.  Animals that eat grains and corn (such as pigs and chickens and cows) are much pricier at the market since they cost so much more to feed.  And rice has become hard to come by.  At Sam’s, which is our local warehouse store, there is actually a limit on how many bags of rice you can buy.  And my husband and I have searched high and low to find a bag of the kind of dog food that our dogs have been eating for the last two years.  We really like it since it is wheat free, and the only grain in it is rice.  All the bags have disappeared off the shelves.  We finally got an answer at the pet store yesterday–they can’t make it anymore because there’s no rice to buy!  This may be trivial–it probably is in the grand scheme of things.  But what about the poor and homeless who have always trusted in rice as a cheap staple in their diet?  What about food banks and shelters that work on tight budgets and suddenly can’t afford to put even rice on the plates of the hungry?

So what is to be done?  Can we even do anything to stop this?  I think the first thing my family is going to do is start supporting gas stations that sell 100% gasoline.  No more E 10 for us.  

Also, I think we’re going to boycott corn for a while.  It’s never really been a favorite of ours, so that’ll be pretty easy.

Another thing that popped into my mind was the need to help those less fortunate.  As believers, we are already called to help the needy, but now they need it more than ever!  I complain all the time about having to stretch my budget to the max, and how the cost of food has doubled in the last 4 years.  Just imagine what low income families are thinking.  So, if you have some wiggle room in you budget, maybe you could consider dropping a big bag of rice off at the local food bank or rescue mission.

And finally, contact your local representative or senator.  They are ultimately the ones that approve government funding of research in ethanol and help to promote ethanol production.  If you live in the US, go to the House of Representatives website or the Senate website to get a list and email your Congressman.  And if you live in a state that happens to have a senator that sits on the Energy and Natural Resources committee, please make an effort to contact them with any questions or concerns you have about ethanol.

And in conclusion to all of this, I have to tell you that I am not against finding a renewable energy source as an alternative to fossil fuels.  But I just think that whatever we use, it shouldn’t be something that takes down the economy.

Okay, bring on the comments.  I’d love to hear what you have to say!

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6 Responses to “Ethanol–The Cause of All Our Woes?”

  1. Courtney Says:

    Well, beyond the reasons you’ve posted, corn production uses petroleum at every stage of production, from fertilization to harvest. I’d really like to see some solid figures confirming that there IS a net energy gain, as there is some controversy about that.

    As for boycotting corn, I think you may be in for a surprise. Corn is in EVERYTHING, and in Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he talks about how he was able to confirm that the carbon in Americans’ bodies is almost entirely derived from corn. (The carbon in corn has a unique marker that makes this confirmation possible.) Here’s an interesting quote from the book, where he notes that more than 25% of the 45,000 items in a supermarket contain corn: “Corn is in the coffee whitener and Cheez Whiz, the frozen yogurt and TV dinner, the canned fruit and ketchup and candies, the soups and snacks and cake mixes…everything from the toothpaste and cosmetics to the disposable diapers, trash bags, cleansers, charcoal briquettes, matches, and batteries, right down to the shine of the magazine that catches your eye by the checkout: corn,” he writes. “Indeed, even the supermarket itself — the wallboard and joint compound, the petroleum and fiberglass and adhesives out of which the building itself has been built — is in no small measure a manifestation of corn.”

  2. bcorc Says:

    Courtney, thanks for the response. I hadn’t looked into how ethanol was produced, so it’s interesting to hear that it uses petroleum.

    I was aware that corn is in everything–just like wheat. I already eat gluten free, but I’ve lately been suspecting allergies to corn as well. So, cutting corn out of the diet is going to be a big deal. I guess it’s a good thing our family eats whole foods, huh?! 🙂

  3. Amanda Norton Says:

    thanks for posting this…it’s been bothering us for a while. Another important aspect besides the effects on food cost and availability is the severe damage that monocropping does to the environment and the earth. Another really interesting author, along with Michael Pollan, is Joel Salatin, a crusader for sustainable agriculture. The expense of the damage done by growing such massive farms of corn, using pesticides, petroleum based machinery, etc will not likely balance the suppposed benefits as a fuel source. Also, there are actually opposing theories that petroleum is even a fossil fuel (check out abiogenic theory of petroleum origin). I certainly am not educated or trained in this area, but I do know that the predominantly accepted theories are not always correct. Besides as believers do we believe the earth is the millions of years old that it takes to make oil according to the biogenic theory? Something to ponder…..and we haven’t yet boycotted corn, just the tasteless, pesticide covered, hormone grown variety in the supermarket. Get some corn from your local farmer and support sustainable agriculture (unless of course you are allergic!)

  4. A couple of things to check out… « Stewardship–Not Convenience Says:

    […] a while back, I was contacted by a writer with the Associated Press about my views on ethanol.  He interviewed me, and now I’ve been quoted in an article in a New York paper.  I […]

  5. Amy Says:

    VERY interesting! We live only 15 miles from a new ethanol plant that is going bankrupt… failing miserably. I appreciate your thoughts and will have my husband read this, too. btw, I found you at Keeper of the Home. Nice post there, too!

  6. pennythoughts Says:

    Hey there! I was referred to your blog by your post at Keeper of the Home. I thought I’d comment on this post, since my husband is a chemical engineer by education and a petroleum engineer by trade. Ethanol hype really gets under his skin because, as Courtney points out, petroleum is used at every stage of production and because it is too expensive to produce. Ethanol is not an economically viable or enivironmentally friendly alternative to gasoline. It seems that much of the ethanol propaganda is just political. It’s too bad. We’d love to see a green fuel (and my husband has dreamed of working in the alternative energy sector of his company). Oh, and yes, we feel the cognitive dissonance of getting our paycheck from big oil and, at home, doing everything we can to reuse, reduce, and recycle. I completely agree with your stewardship perspective on environmental concerns. We’re with you 100%

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