Another Ethanol Boondoggle

Along this blog, I’ve been beating the anti-ethanol drum for quite some time*. Now, we have yet another reason to oppose it. Not only is it environmentally neutral (or harmful), not only does it drive up the cost of food products, it also sucks up scarce water resources!

This is controversial for several reasons. There are doubts about how green ethanol really is (some say the production process uses almost as much energy as it produces). Some argue that using farmland for ethanol pushes up food prices internationally (world wheat prices rose 25% this week alone, perhaps as a side-effect of America’s ethanol programme). But one of the least-known but biggest worries is ethanol’s extravagant use of water.

A typical ethanol factory producing 50m gallons of biofuels a year needs about 500 gallons of water a minute. Most of that goes into the boiling and cooling process, which is similar to making beer. Some water is lost through evaporation in the cooling tower and in waste discharge. All this is putting a heavy burden on aquifers in some corn-growing areas.

There’s only one group who still thinks this is a good idea: farmers. And we’re paying them to think it, so I don’t think they’re very impartial.

What will it take to put a stop to this? Anyone with two brain cells to rub together can figure out that this is an incredibly useless, counterproductive, and costly endeavor. But nobody will stand up and try to put a stop to it.

Are our politicians that wedded to the ethanol train? One would think that perhaps a certain senator from Arizona might suggest that there won’t be any ethanol powering the Straight Talk Express. But I’m not holding my breath.

* For examples, see here, here, here, and here.

  • Jeff Molby

    There’s only one group who still thinks this is a good idea: farmers.

    You’re forgetting about the largest voting bloc in the country: people with a statist bent that barely pay attention.

  • pete

    *sigh* it takes 3 gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of ethanol. It takes 60 gallons of water to refine 1 gallon of oil.

    Please get your facts straight before you start spreading disinformation …

  • Nick M.

    *sigh* it takes 3 gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of ethanol. It takes 60 gallons of water to refine 1 gallon of oil.

    Please get your facts straight before you start spreading disinformation …


  • pete

    Department of Public Works • 600 East Queen Street • Pendleton, South Carolina 29670
    (864) 646-9073
    Water Trivia Facts

    scroll down to #57

    How much water does it take to refine one barrel of crude oil? 1,851

  • Brad Warbiany


    That’s gotta be BS. Judging from this:

    How much water does it take to process one barrel of beer? 1,500 gallons

    One barrel of beer is 31 gallons. I produce beer in smaller batches (about 15 gallons) and do so in an incredibly inefficient home process. I probably don’t use more than 50 gallons to produce my 15 gallon end product. A comparable commercial brewery would probably use 25 gallons or so to produce the same 15 gallons of beer (noting that about 15 gallons of water comprises the end product, for only 10 gallons of “waste”).

    Adding in the water to grow grain & hops (not counting rain), I can’t imagine 31 gallons of beer taking 1500 gallons of water to produce.

    Without some sense of methodology, I can’t trust these numbers.

  • oilnwater

    the ethanol scam was quite apparent from the get-go, to anyone with a grade school science background. let’s see, you take a bushel of cellulose material from which it took X joules of energy to grow, and somehow expect the resulting fuel from that material to go foward and make an energy gain? maybe if ethanol fuel were used in a local infrastructure, i could see the genuine interest in making ethanol engines in that region.

  • SC

    This website has some interesting info (the commentary at the bottom is worth reading too) – according to this, a good rule-of-thumb calculation is 4 gallons of water per gallon of ethanol produced (that’s just in-plant processing and doesn’t factor in if any water was used for irrigation). It calculates the water to process one gallon of crude oil as about half a gallon.

    While on the one hand it’s nice to see the local farmers here in the heartland doing well in the boom (especially after having grown up during the farm foreclosure era in the 80’s), ethanol isn’t the magic bullet its touted to be, and way too much marginal and environmentally sensitive ground is going under the plow. The rate of field tiling has accelerated (to drain off marshy areas), farmers that maintained buffer strips along streams are cultivating right up the banks now, and your starting to see a corn-corn rotation replace a corn-soybean rotation, which means even more fertilizer’s going to be needed on those fields to maintain the same yields. This just plain can’t be sustained in the long-term.

  • Brad Warbiany


    Simply put, I think it might be tough to trust anyone’s numbers on this subject. What sort of methodology someone uses to develop these numbers means everything, and if they don’t provide that, you can’t really evaluate apples-to-apples.

  • TerryP

    I live in corn country and the water use is just way overblown. Yes it uses a lot of water but no more than a few of sections of pivots for an average plant. The numbers sound huge and for anyone business they are large, but in the scope of things they are a drop in the bucket. Where most of these plants are being built it is not in a populated area. They are competing for water basically against the farmers in the area. In some places they have to offset their water use by having farmers shut down wells.

    Actually in my area many people are going back to beans this year instead of corn partially due to the high price of fertilizer. While farmers are moving away from a corn/soybean rotation to more of a corn/corn/soybean rotation it has more to do with productivity than prices. They yields on beans just have not been increasing like they have been for corn and they have found that the corn/corn/soybean rotation actually works better than the corn/bean rotation.

    The other thing that ethanol never gets credit for is lowering the price of gasoline. Without the use of ethanol our gas price would be higher because we would have to use more oil. In turn that would mean that our food and other things would also be higher as transportation is a large cost for many products. Did you know that the corn in a box of Cornflakes only amounts to something like 5-10 cents of the cost of the cereal. The large increase in most food items is likely more due to the high price of fuel than the high price of corn.

    While I am not trying to say that ethanol is a magical pill. It is not. In fact without the subsidies it likely could not compete with gasoline, but I think sometimes it gets a far worse rap than it deserves. They are becoming more efficient with each new plant. In fact the feed byproduct from ethanol is actually better and more economical in most cases than the corn/other feed that they were feeding the cattle prior to ethanol use. Actually I see ethanol moving to other crops/products at some point as corn just isn’t as well suited to ethanol as some other crops could be. It just happens to be that corn is what most farmers grow and like to grow. It also has the infrastructure for transportation, storage, and handling that other crops do not have.


    I work in the food industry and this craziness with Corn Ethanol and Soy Biodiesel have created market prices for ALL necesarry food commodities reach new highs like never before. Spitzer might have slept with prostitutes but at least they didn’t catch him sleeping with farm lobbyists.

  • tarran

    Think about these two statements togetheer for a moment:

    Without the use of ethanol our gas price would be higher because we would have to use more oil. … In fact without the subsidies [ethanol] likely could not compete with gasoline,

    The fact is that the subsidies make the actual prices of everything even more expensive than they would be otherwise. Ture, the nominal prices are lower, but the taxes levied to pay for the subsidies end up increasing the actual prices above what they would be.

    In the end subsidies for ethanol leave us all less well off.

  • Jetty

    “Subsidies”—The ethanol industry created 1.2 billion dollars more in FEDEERAL taxes than were paid in subsidies last year. How does that leave us less well off? That does not include state and local tax revenues.
    “Grain prices”—The weak economy created by the housing debacle and high oil prices has had a huge influence on the grain prices. The investments in grain futures has increased drastically, driving up prices. When you see the price of corn fluctuate 40 cents in one day when there is no supply and demand news you know the price has nothing to do with ethanol usage.–Don’t forget that the only thing taken from the corn is the starch. The nutrients remain in the byproduct and are fed to livestock.

    I guess it is better to bi#@%h about an industry and continue to do nothing but send our dollars to countries that hate us.

  • pete

    I penned my thoughts arguing in favor of Bio-Fuel back in Sept 2007.

    I addresses most of the content discussed here …

  • tarran

    You do realize that the economic activity that is supplanted by ethanol production would also generate taxes right?

    Anyway, the notion that if an industry generates more in taxes than is sent to it via subsidies that it is a net good is easily refuted.

    Imagine if the US government directed 1 trillion dollars’ worth of subsidies my way. I use this trillion to fund a bunch of businesses, outbid competition for talent etc and build an empire that every year pays $1,000,000,001 annually in taxes. In fact, thanks to the generous subsidy, I come to own all the businesses in the U.S.

    Are people really going to be better off? What about all the economic activity that does not happen because of the money being sucked out of the capital markets to pay for the subsidies?

  • oilnwater

    even upon simple investigation, energy net gain is negative with ethanol production. unless the processing of the cellulose by-material of corn is done at a site close enough to harvest with the newest techniques available, then the activity is an economic loser. most simple recycling, in comparison, is also an economic loser. the exceptions are when the parent material has a high enough market value such as steel and some glass.

    but once again, a cursory glance at what ethanol production entails, and what the Federal govt proposed and subsidized is utterly ludricrous. why pay a federal tax for an energy product that could only be viable in the vicinities of heavy industrialized farming? why subsidize an industry with no natural economic incentive, especially on a national scale? this is what happens when central planning meets reality.

  • pete

    Hrm, so it appears that Brazil can become energy independent but the United States of America can not …

    Interesting, because we *are* running out of oil like it or not – we are either at world peak right now or already past it. After oil peaks it becomes much harder to extract and the quality goes way down. As we run out of oil and demand keeps steadily climbing we head toward inevitable disaster and yes war.

    I see a real reluctance to change regards energy in this country and I find it unfortunate. Consumers need choices at the pump and choices for the type of vehicles they can purchase and industry is working to provide those choices.

    Like it or not the reality is the days of petroleum based societies are setting so harpooning newly emerging industries that are trying to address the cold hard fact that we need other energy sources it detrimental, destructive and unfortunate.

    The answer is diversified energy sources and bio-fules are one of those diversified sources.

    What is really motivating naysayers? It is easy to always criticize because it falsely exempts one from helping solve hard problems or really embracing positive change.

  • oilnwater

    pete, regardless of peak oil conditions, nothing to date can replace the energy expended per unit of natural resource as petroleum or coal. local alternative energy networks can be a net energy gainer. (e.g. logically placed turbine windfields, or solar farms in the middle of a desert)but the problem is the limits of physics, and these alternative energy facilities can service far fewer people than can a traditional grid.

    and bottom line: it takes oil to grow your alternative fuel. but yes i do wish someone found a magical petroleum replacement too.

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