Ethanol: Not So Green After All

Ethanol is perhaps the biggest boondoggle in American history. Pushed forward by the farm lobby, we’ve been led to believe that its the clean, green alternative to gasoline. But we’ve already started seeing unintended consequences. Corn prices are higher than ever, because of demand from fuel producers for the raw material to make the ethanol that many states are requiring them to sell. Higher corn prices are themselves raising prices for everything from milk to tortillas in Mexico.

And, now, it seems that ethanol itself may not be all that great for the environment:

A surge in the demand for ethanol — touted as a greener alternative to gasoline — could have a serious environmental downside for the Chesapeake Bay, because more farmers growing corn could mean more pollution washing off farm fields, a new study warned yesterday.

The study, whose sponsors included the U.S. government and an environmental group, predicted that farmers in the bay watershed will plant 500,000 or more new acres of corn in the next five years. Because fields of corn generally produce more polluted runoff than those of other crops, that’s a problem.

“It’s going in the opposite direction from where we want to go,” said Jim Pease, a professor at Virginia Tech and one of the study’s authors.

Ethanol, a fuel made from processed and fermented plant matter, is an old invention with enormous new cachet. Proponents say that it offers an alternative to oil imported from overseas and that it emits fewer greenhouse gases than fossil fuels. In his State of the Union address in January, President Bush called for its use in motor fuels to be increased sevenfold by 2017. Already, 15 ethanol facilities are either planned or under construction in the mid-Atlantic, according to yesterday’s report.

But ethanol’s boom has also produced a variety of unintended, and unwanted, consequences. Because the primary ingredient at U.S. ethanol plants is corn, the price of that grain has shot up, making everything from tortillas to beef to chocolate more expensive.

In the Chesapeake area, according to the study, the drawback to ethanol’s boom is that more farmers have planted cornfields to take advantage of the prices. Corn harvests are expected to increase 12 percent in Maryland this year and 8 percent in Virginia, according to a forecast in March from the U.S. Agriculture Department.


More cornfields could be trouble, the study warned, because corn generally requires more fertilizer than such crops as soybeans or hay. When it rains, some of this fertilizer washes downstream, and it brings such pollutants as nitrogen and phosphorus, which feed unnatural algae blooms in the bay. These algae consume the oxygen that fish, crabs and other creatures need to breathe, creating the Chesapeake’s infamous dead zones.

Once again, the law of unintended consequences rears its head.

  • Rob

    Although I understand the value of a provacative title, shouldn´t the title of this post be:

    Ethanol derived exclusivly from corn: Not so green after all?

    As ethanol is one of the alternative fuels that could reduce fossil fuel use (which is good for energy security and environmental reasons), it shouldn’t focus on one feedstock, as we do now with fossil fuels (oil). Diversifying feedstock is one of the key elements in developing an economically and environmentally sustainable ethanol industry.

    What you see now is the development of an emerging industry. Things will go wrong, such as the unintended pollutants that are mentioned in the article. Those are most certainly important issues that need to be resolved, but please focus on the real issue: the United States needs to diversify it’s ethanol feedstock in order to produce large volumes of ethanol in a sustainable way.

    Best regards,


    P.S. please show me evidence of corn ethanol production being solely responsible for the increase in corn prices. Take into account other factors such as weather and harvest yields etc. I’m not saying it’s not partially responsible for it, but there is absolutly no proof that it was the leading cause.

  • Joshua Holmes

    Another thing to keep in mind is that replacing fossil fuels with ethanol means taking up more land to grow more corn or sugar cane. Under the current system of subsidies and giveaways, the factory farm is heavily favored. But the factory farm needs – you guessed it – a lot of fossil fuels itself in order to run. And this doesn’t just mean tractors and harvesters. It also requires petroleum to create the fertilizer. And energy – probably from fossil fuels – to produce the ethanol from the corn or cane. And like most factory farms, there is plenty of chemical run-off into the water table.

    So, what is the total environmental cost of ethanol? That’s an interesting question.

    For a more libertarian and more sensible solution, the state must get out of the business of heavily subsidizing transportation. The long-distance mass market economy is a product of heavy state intervention in favor of large corporations. These corporations get to offload their communication and transportation costs onto you, as well as on their smaller, regional competitors. Abolishing these subisidies can lower taxes and reduce pollution (there’s two things I’ll bet you didn’t think went together).

    In addition, the state has happily separated our home, work, play, and shopping, making a car almost completely necessary outside of the downtown of eastern cities. Abolishing zoning would go a long way towards sensible and environmentally-sound development. It would again lower the cost of living – fewer cars needed, fewer taxes for the extra roads – and improve the environment – fewer roads to absorb heat and slough off water, fewer cars to cough pollution into the air.

    The solution to the environment is liberty.

  • Bobby Fontaine

    Ethanol from any source is bad news under the current structure set up by state and federal governments. It doesn’t work added to gasoline unless its used in vehicles designed specifically for it.

    Flex fuel vehicles pollute more because the government allows the manufactures to forgo standards in order to get them to produce flex fuel vehicles so they don’t invest in them getting MPG required for other cars which results in more pollutants and lost mileage.

    Ethanol can work. But it appears that no matter what direction we go with gasoline or ethanol, the government has seen to it that it will have the worst possible results. Programs that appear would produce better profits making for wiser investments while producing positive results for the country and consumers aren’t even looked at.

    The problem is that the people with all the money and power in the world don’t have any common sense. And why would they? Why would they waste their time thinking or learning how things work, thats what we do, those of us that are beneath them.

    They say absolute power corrupts absolutely. What I say is that an idiot is an idiot, there isn’t anything else to be said about it. We need to separate money from power. The more money a person has, the more disconnected they become from reality. Its like they died and went to heaven but they keep coming back down here to earth to tell the rest of us how to run our lives so we can get where they are. But it doesn’t work.

    When you have enough money for other people to do everything for you, it makes you a stupid person no matter who you are. The world has become too complicated for lazy stupid people to run it.

    Power and wealth don’t count anymore. Most intelligent children could solve the energy problems this country has better than our leadership by simply researching and finding out the facts, then applying to obvious correct solutions, unless they have adopted an air of distinction about themselves as being of class and wealth. Then whatever they come up with will be correct no matter how stupid it is.

    But we keep waiting for rich and powerful people to get it right. Here’s a clue. They simply aren’t capable of it, they never have been and never will. The country will keep sliding over the edge of reality until we have all been busted down to a quality of life that allows us enough of a view of of what intelligence represents to remember how to get things right again.

    If we can learn the lesson that’s being placed before us, we’ll come out as the world leaders until the next swing of the pendulum comes back our way to see if we are ready to take freedom to the next level that time has readied for us. It all comes down to how stupid or smart we are about the issue of ethanol as a fuel product. Ethanol is the beginning or the end of the free world.

  • pedro

    …next weeks report is on ethanol

  • js290
  • Nick

    misleading. Corn-based ethanol doesn’t work. Plenty of other options out there, but corn’s what’s subsidized.

    Even if you’re okay with subsidies, place the subsidy on the ethanol rather than the corn and you get a totally different result

  • David T

    I think it would be fair to say that finding an alternative to fossil fuels would be a worthy pursuit. Corn was a first step – even if it’s not perfect.