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Debate: Corn ethanol

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Should corn ethanol be emphasized in the fight against global warming?

Background and context

Corn ethanol is ethanol produced from corn as a biomass through industrial fermentation, chemical processing and distillation. It is primarily used in the United States as an alternative to gasoline and petroleum (first-generation biofuel).
Its is the most common type of Ethanol in the United States, but is considered less efficient than other types of ethanol (sugar cane, etc.) especially when only the vegetable itself is used and not the whole plant. Corn ethanol has been seen as an attractive option in recent years because it is a cleaner alternative to gasoline. Questions remain, however, regarding whether it should become a mainstay of international strategies to combat global warming. A number of questions frame the debate: Can corn ethanol truly help lower emissions and combat global warming? While cleaner than gasoline, does corn ethanol still emit significant quantities of greenhouse gases? Are these emissions, however, neutralized by the growth of the plant that goes into producing the biofuel? Are there other emissions related to the production and transportation of biofuels? Is methane a concern? Does corn ethanol have an impact on air quality? Does it require too much land to produce corn ethanol? Does this put pressure on agricultural production and increase food prices? Does it excessively increase the demand for and use of water? Can corn ethanol be produced on a massive scale, such that it can displace the use of oil in vehicles? Is it economical? Does it require subsidies? Do corn ethanol vehicles perform well? Are they practical cars to own? What do public think?

See Wikipedia's article on corn ethanol for more background.

Contents

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Global warming: Is corn ethanol helpful in fighting global warming?

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Yes

  • Corn grown for ethanol acts first as a carbon sink Any plant, when grown, draws carbon dioxide from the air in the process of photosynthesis. Corn grown for ethanol is just the same. When it is burned, and emits carbon dioxide into the air, it is actually only emitting the carbon dioxide that it had previously drawn out of the atmosphere. In this sense, corn ethanol is largely neutral in its carbon dioxide emissions; it gives and takes equally. Gasoline and natural gas, on the other hand, are releasing new carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The overall result is that corn ethanol production and use is far better for the environment and global warming.
  • Corn ethanol burns cleaner than gasoline Ethanol, Fueling America's Future - "Ethanol is a clean-burning, renewable fuel...E85 is the cleanest burning fuel available on the market today...10% ethanol-enriched fuel reduces carbon monoxide better than any other gasoline — by as much as 30%...The use of 10% ethanol-enriched fuel reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 12 – 19% compared with conventional gasoline, according to Argonne National Laboratory...Ethanol reduces tailpipe fine particulate matter emissions by 50%. These emissions pose a threat to those with respiratory ailments."
  • It requires less petroleum to produce corn ethanol than gasoline While some argue that it more petroleum is burned in the production of corn ethanol than is burned in the production and use of gasoline, multiple studies indicate otherwise. Some of them conclude that the entire process of producing and using corn ethanol emits roughly 1/3 less carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases than the production and use of gasoline.



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No

  • Ethanol energy is a net CO2 polluter The primary concern here is the amount of fossil fuels that are burned in the process of producing corn ethanol, not just the emissions from the burning of corn ethanol alone. While corn ethanol could still be an improvement over gasoline in its net-C02 pollutions, the improvement may be so marginal that it could be considered statistically insignificant.
  • Corn ethanol incentivizes deforestation, contributing to global warming Increasing demand for ethanol incentivizes the deforestation of rainforests and other areas to make way for corn crops. Because deforestation eliminates important carbon sinks that help combat global warming, corn ethanol, in so far as it leads to deforestation, worsens the global warming crisis.
  • Corn ethanol cannot compete with oil: In terms of net energy gain, there is little comparison between corn ethanol and oil. Tad Patzek, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Cal Berkley says it would take three to six gallons of ethanol to achieve the same net energy gain as a gallon of oil.[1]
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Net energy: Does corn ethanol yield a net energy gain?

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Yes

  • Corn ethanol energy produces a net energy gain Corn ethanol provides more energy for consumption than it takes to make the ethanol itself. This is important because if it takes more energy to actually make a fuel than energy is received out from that fuel, then what is the point of making the fuel in the first place? Numerous studies and camps support this claim that ethanol energy is a net energy gain. It would appear that more studies support this side of the argument, than the counter claim that ethanol is a net energy loss. See the list of supporting studies and claims in the argument page.
  • Relative to gasoline, corn ethanol has a good net energy gain. The net energy balance of gas is 0.76, according to the National Defense Resource Council.[2] This means the amount of energy in gasoline is %20 less than the energy put in to extract the resource. With corn ethanol, estimates range from it being a net energy gain of around 1.4 to a net energy loss of around .8. This means that, in general, it produces an even higher net energy gain than gasoline. On relative terms, corn ethanol stacks up well to its main competitor; gasoline.


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No

  • Ethanol energy involves a net loss of energy A number of studies indicate that ethanol energy involves a net energy loss. This means that more energy is actually being used in the production of ethanol than is received out. See the list of studies in this argument page.
  • Transporting ethanol requires substantial ethanol Alex Halperin. "Ethanol: Myths and Realities". Business Week. May 19, 2006 - "Ethanol can't travel in pipelines along with gasoline, because it picks up excess water and impurities. As a result, ethanol needs to be transported by trucks, trains, or barges, which is more expensive and complicated than sending it down a pipeline. As refiners switched to ethanol this spring, the change in transport needs has likely contributed to the rise in gas prices. Some experts argue that the U. S. doesn't have adequate infrastructure for wide ethanol use.Also, ethanol contains less energy than gas. That means drivers have to make more frequent trips to the pump."
  • Uncertainty regarding net energy of corn ethanol is troubling. The fact that there is even debate about whether corn ethanol results in a net energy gain is troubling. It should not be a close call. A good energy resource should have a substantial net energy gain. It seems that corn ethanol does not fit this criteria.



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Economics: Is corn ethanol beneficial economically?

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Yes

  • Expansion of corn ethanol industries is increasing its viability. Despite continuing doubts about whether corn ethanol provides a genuine energy savings, in the United States alone, at least 39 new ethanol plants are expected to be completed over the next 9 to 12 months. The new plants will add 1.4 billion gallons a year, a 30 percent increase over current production of 4.6 billion gallons, according to Dan Basse, president of AgResources, an economic forecasting firm in Chicago. By 2008, analysts predict ethanol output could reach 8 billion gallons a year.[3]
  • Ethanol is economically beneficial Corn ethanol is economically beneficial in numerous ways. In general, any new fuel is a valuable contribution to energy security and the price-competition between various energy sources. This generally benefits consumers. In addition, the new corn ethanol industry creates jobs in numerous industries, including biotechnology and chemistry sectors.
  • Corn ethanol is competitive against high oil prices Ethanol is economically competitive against rising oil prices. In the long-run, with gasoline reserves running out and energy demand growing, gasoline prices are set to rise exponentially. Corn ethanol prices, on the other hand have a long-term trajectory of dropping. This is because corn ethanol supply will only increase in the coming decades as the industry expands.



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No

  • The corn ethanol boom is driven by political propaganda The corn ethanol industry has grown largely due to powerful corn lobbies around the world. This lobby has been particularly strong in the United States. Yet, the case being made by these lobbyists is biased by a desire for profits, not to combat global warming.
  • Corn ethanol cannot scale. It is not feasible to produce the amount of corn required to make the fuel a viable alternative to oil or a serious supplier of energy.


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Oil replacement: Is corn ethanol a good way to reduce oil use and dependence?

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Yes

  • Corn ethanol is a good local replacement for oil On farms and towns where corn is being produced, corn ethanol is a particularly attractive fuel option. Because it is locally grown, it avoids the process of transporting oil from long distances. This cuts transportation costs out of the equation and protects the environment from emissions and pollution that result from the long-distance transportation of oil.
  • Corn ethanol is merely a part of the equation in replacing oil. Very few people argue that corn ethanol is THE replacement for oil and the solution to global warming. Rather, they argue that it is merely a part of the equation, or that it is an element of a diversified portfolio in both reducing foreign dependencies on oil and solving the problem of global warming. To argue that corn ethanol can't fully replace oil is to miss this point.
  • Corn ethanol production is becoming more efficient relative to gasoline While the technology and production methods advance in support of corn ethanol and as adequate corn supply is developed, the price of corn ethanol will decrease. Oil, conversely, is becoming increasingly scarce and difficult to produce, making it inevitable that oil prices will increase over the 21st century.


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No

  • Corn ethanol will not be a significant substitute for oil - Corn ethanol production and use is currently only about 1% of US petroleum production and use. One source indicates that if 100% of corn resources were used in the country, it would still only constitute 16% of the total petroleum production and consumption. Corn ethanol, therefore, is not really capable of scaling to help replace gasoline.
  • Corn ethanol production demands too much oil to lower oil dependencies Corn ethanol production demands a substantial amount of oil in the processing of corn into alcohol. Corn ethanol production, therefore, may actually increase demand for petroleum. Or, at least, the amount of petroleum used in the production of corn ethanol will cancel out the amount of foreign oil corn ethanol replaces.
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Air-quality: Is corn ethanol better for air quality?

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Yes

  • Corn ethanol has a positive effect on air quality The National Renewable Energy Laboratory tested a 1998 Ford Taurus FFV running on E85, reporting, "Emissions of total potency weighted toxics (including benzene, 1,3-butadiene, formaldehyde, and acetaldehyde) for the FFV Taurus tested on E85 were 55% lower than that of the FFV tested on gasoline."[4]


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No

  • Corn ethanol damages air quality and causes respiratory illnesses A health study by a Stanford professor indicates that emissions from the burning of corn ethanol production could have equal or worse air-quality and health effects as compared to the burning of gasoline. While corn ethanol emissions may be less problematic than gasoline to global warming, the impact on human health is certainly a significant issue to consider.


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Land-use: Does ethanol energy use too much land?

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Yes


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No

  • Corn ethanol contributes to soil erosion and runoff To produce corn ethanol, corn must be grown. If it is to be produced in mass, more land must be cleared to make room. Soil erosion is the natural result of clearing land for crop production. This has many environmentally negative impacts. Typically, it strips an ecosystem of its minerals, and the runoff that occurs sends silt as well as fertilizers and chemicals "down stream", sometimes into local water supplies.



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Food prices: Does corn ethanol harm food supplies and prices?

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Yes

  • Making ethanol from corn does not deprive the needy of food The primary issue with world famine is the difficulty of transporting existing food resources to the poor and needy. There is plenty of food in the world. Growing corn for ethanol does not deprive food supplies from the needy. In addition, the idea is to grow new corn crops to supply corn ethanol, rather than divert existing corn food crops to the production of corn ethanol. Indeed, as The Economist reckons, it is possible to make ethanol from cellulose, the abundant, inedible portion of most crops. "Using inedible inputs avoids fights about diverting food crops for fuel..." [The Economist, "Coming up empty", March 27th 2010]


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No

  • Corn ethanol increases the price of corn and related foods Corn ethanol increases the demand for corn, while it is difficult for supply to keep pace. This increases the price of corn in general for food and for ethanol. It subsequently increases the price of live stock and meats, because corn is used as feedstock.


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Water-use: Does corn ethanol deal with water limitations effectively?

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Yes

  • Corn requires less water than many other crops. Corn generally uses less water than soybeans and cotton in Pacific and Mountain regions.[5]
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No

  • Producing corn for ethanol requires too much water Water scarcity globally makes the heavy demand for water in the growth of corn crops very damaging. Increased population sizes, global warming effects, and warnings of 'water wars' on the horizon all make corn ethanols heavy use of water unattractive.
  • Corn ethanol production damages water quality All farming, particularly with row crops like corn, results in soil run-off. The concern is that pesticides and fertilizers used in the growth of corn will run-off into local ecosystems and water supplies.


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Power: Is corn ethanol fuel powerful/efficient?

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Yes

  • Many race cars run on corn ethanol: Ethanol fuel has a high octane level, which makes it a high-performance fuel that is desirable to many race car drivers.


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No

  • Corn ethanol is less energy efficient than regular gasoline: A gallon of E-85 (fuel that contains 85% ethanol, 15% gasoline) has an energy content of 80,000 Btu — compared with about 118,000 Btu for a gallon of gas.[6]
  • Sugar ethanol yields more energy and power than corn ethanol A study, published in the July 2005 issue of BioScience, the journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS)assessed assessed the energy required to produce the crops and to manufacture and distribute the resulting fuels. In the United States, ethanol yielded only about 10 percent more energy than was required to produce it; in Brazil, where a different process is used, ethanol yielded 3.7 times more energy than was used to produce it.[7]




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Engine compatibility: Is corn ethanol compatible with most engine types?

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Yes

  • Modern engines have been made ethanol-compatible Over the past 20 years, engine manufacturers have made their engines compatible with corn ethanol fuels. There is no requirement in adopting corn ethanol to modify engines; they are already 100% compatible.


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No

  • Ethanol fuel is bad for engines Examples of extreme corrosion of ferrous components, and internal separation of portions of rubber fuel tanks have been observed in some vehicles using ethanol fuels.
  • Most engines are compatible only with ethanol mixed with gasoline. Fuels with more than 10% ethanol are not compatible with non E85-ready fuel system components.



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Non-corn ethanol: Is corn ethanol superior to alternative types of ethanol?

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Yes

  • Corn ethanol is an immediate alternative fuel solution. This is one of the main arguments the US president Bush put forward in his advocacy of corn ethanol, saying in 2006, "Ethanol has the largest potential for immediate growth...Without much cost, your automobile can be converted to use 85 percent ethanol," Other alternative energy sources, including alternative ethanol types, do not typically have this quality. Corn ethanol energy has been in the works for decades in some places, and automobile engines have already been made compatible with it.


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No

  • Corn ethanol is inferior to cellulosic ethanol Cellulosic ethanol has a net energy return of 4.40 to 6.61, compared to corn ethanol's range of between roughly 1 and 1.6 (according to different studies). This means that the energy return of ceullulosic ethanol is roughly three to four times that of corn ethanol, a huge difference.


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Public opinion: Where does public opinion stand on corn ethanol?

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Yes

  • Rural people have high hopes for corn ethanol There is a very high political appeal for corn ethanol development in rural, farmland areas with people that are involved in the corn industry or simply somehow exposed to it. This excitement should be harnessed.


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No


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Pro/con sources:

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Yes


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No

See also

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