Once a critic of corn ethanol Ã¯Â¿Â½ and the heavy government subsidies that make it profitable, presidential hopeful John McCain showed a change of heart recently in Iowa, where he praised corn ethanol as a "vital energy source Ã¯Â¿Â½ because of our dependency on foreign oil." He applauded ethanol's "greenhouse gas reduction efforts." McCain isn't alone. The current corn ethanol boom finds support from presidential candidates of both parties, along with members of Congress, and President George W. Bush.
They argue that boosting ethanol production in the United States can help us overcome our addiction to foreign oil, while also reducing the nearly one million tons of carbon dioxide pumped out by our cars every day. The Senate Energy Bill passed in June included a mandate to increase ethanol production to 36 billion gallons of ethanol every year by 2022, and bills passed by both the House of Representatives and Senate call for increased availability of E85 fuel.
But make no mistake. While politicians talk up the promise of ethanol, researchers are calculating the costs, and ethanol is proving to be a real loser among possible solutions that can help the United States gain energy independence while also lessening our impact on the climate.
Corn is the most pesticide-intensive food crop in the country, and most corn is fertilized with petroleum-derived nitrogen fertilizers. These pollute waterways and cause nitrogen-rich dead-zones in coastal areas. Furthermore, corn ethanol consumes a huge amount of energy in the production process, and reduces carbon emissions by a mere 10 to 15 percent over gasoline. When corn ethanol producers build new coal-fired power plants to meet their energy-intensive production needs (as some midwestern producers have done), any emissions advantage corn ethanol has over gasoline disappears completely. Ultimately, corn ethanol can't help us solve the climate crisis.
What's more, corn ethanol can do little to wean U.S. drivers from foreign oil. While the 36 billion gallon mandate in the Energy Bill sounds like a lot of fuel, it's actually less than 20 percent of what American drivers use each year. Even if our corn were used for ethanol, it would satisfy only a small fraction of our annual needs. And converting that amount of corn into fuel is unthinkable; U.S. corn accounts for 40 percent of the global market, and rising prices due to the huge demand for ethanol are already affecting food prices at home and abroad. Corn ethanol isn't a national security solution, and could spark a food security crisis.
But while there is a lot of bad news about corn ethanol, there is good news on the horizon with the promise of plug-in electric hybrid vehicles (PHEVs). PHEVs are like hybrid cars on the market, but they have an increased battery capacity and can be recharged by plugging into a power source. This means the car could run on electricity alone for many milesÃ¯Â¿Â½greatly reducing emissions, especially when plugged into a renewable electricity source like solar or wind. Even when charged on the current U.S. power grid, which includes electricity generated by carbon-emitting coal, PHEVs reduce emissions by about 40 percent over conventional cars.
Better yet, we have the capacity right now to power over 70 percent of U.S. cars, trucks, vans, and SUVs with electricity if we charge them at night, when the power grid is the least taxed. And renewable energy experts agree that the widespread use of plug-in cars would help kick-start the wind and solar industries, making them more cost-competitive with coal.
Toyota and GM are both working on bringing plug-ins to the market, and the Energy Bills passed by the House and Senate this summer both call for tax and loan support for consumers who purchase them.
While members of Congress are home for the summer, call yours to tell them "no" on corn ethanol, and "yes" on increased fuel economy and plug-in hybrids. Then keep an eye out for what comes out of the House-Senate energy bill conference in the fall. And let car makers know that you want your next car to plug in. You'd prefer to see corn on your plate, not in your gas tank.
Sarah Tarver-Wahlquist is an editor at Co-op America, a nonprofit consumer organization advocating socially and environmentally responsible purchasing and investing.