The Flawed Argument in Favor of Corn Ethanol as a Replacement for Fossil Fuels
There is a proven need, both environmentally and economically, for the world community to transfer its oil dependency to an alternative source of energy. Many industry and government agencies have endorsed the use of biofuels, such as ethanol and specifically corn-based ethanol in the United States, as a viable alternative fuel source. However, due to the inefficiency in the production process of biofuels, its implications to world agricultural exploitation, its threat of improper land use and the likely increase of world hunger, the biofuel movement should not be considered a viable replacement for petroleum. The research here will constitute an endorsement for a different form of alternative fuel from petroleum or biofuel.
There is a clear and irrevocable need for the world community and major industrialized nations such as the United States to reduce their dependency on petroleum which, as a fuel source, is environmentally destructive and precipitous of fractious world politics. A popular interest has developed on the part of those in the agriculture and oil industries, as well as within the American government, of considering the potential value of biofuel as a viable alternative fuel source. Typically taking the form of ethanol, biofuel is in that context an alcohol-based fuel converted from the fermented sugars of plant cellulose. Given this point of origin, it is generally a cleaner burning fuel than most fossil fuels. For this reason, biofuels have commanded a great deal of attention in the discourse over possible alternative fuel foci.
However, several decades of refinement in the yielding and burning of biofuels have produced only modest progress at best, leaving us today with a fuel source that, while cleaner burning, is nonetheless distilled by an inefficient and costly process that benefits only modestly the interest of deriving energy. Moreover, evidence suggests that there are a great many conceptual drawbacks to a determined dependency on biofuels, which rely heavily on the use of agricultural, land, and labor-based resources for the production of fuel. The result would be, most research will reinforce, a shift away from food production and, therefore, and distinguishable destabilization of the world’s food supply.
For these reasons and others that will likely be encountered by the source-gathering process, this research is intended to better understand the drawbacks to biofuel as they outweigh the prospective benefits.
Proposal: Critical Literature Review
The core reason for the current emphasis on biofuel as an alternative method to energy production is its wholesale endorsement by prominent sources of power in the government and in impacted industries. Indeed, as the research here will focus primarily on the United States for its observations, the focus on corn-based ethanol, which is determinably inefficient and negatively implicated on issues of world hunger, amongst lawmakers and industry-makers in the U.S. will draw the attention of a research investigation.
The research here proposes, therefore, a source review which is directed toward the support of theories asserting the negative consequences of making a transition toward biofuels, as opposed to engaging some other more effective means of energy generation.
The proposed study would seek to establish a body of information, through the evaluation of admitted sources, that may be used to counter the presence of misinformation amongst the supports of biofuel as a dominant energy supply.
The research account will proceed from a position of opposition to an emphasis in the alternative fuel movement on biofuels. This position is taken on behalf of an interest in a meaningful shift away from the policies and philosophies associated with oil production as well as an interest in more constructively channeling the alternative fuel discourse. Therefore, this research is directed at decision makers in policy, industry and public advocacy.
Research Question and Thesis
The primary research question seeks to identify the consequences of a shift toward biofuels, and specifically toward corn ethanol, as a primary source of energy generation. In response to this proposed question, the tentative thesis statement argues that though often favored as an alternative fuel due to evidence that they are cleaner burning, biofuels should not be seen as a positive alternative fuel to petroleum due to the inefficiency of their production process and the likelihood that this would produce a resource shift instigating worldwide patterns of food shortage.
The world’s dependency upon petroleum and other fossil fuels comprises an energy scenario which cannot be sustained. In most scientifically informed circles, and within the context of the progressive political discourse, it is fairly well-understood that the environmental consequences of burning gasoline can no longer be endured. From the dangerous carbon emissions which add toxicity to the atmosphere to the costly and geologically degrading procedures of yielding the resource, the production of oil represents a waning approach to energy generation. Though resistance exists prominently in the form of industries and governments which benefit directly from the world’s dependency on a resource quickly diminishing in availability, there is nonetheless a movement on the part of many more progressive organizations, corporations and world governments to pursue viable forms of alternative fuel generation. Among these, the development and endorsement of biofuels, and in particular of cellulose-based ethanol, as an eventual replacement for gasoline, has been the most institutionally popular ambition. However, most environmentalists and world humanitarian organizations argue that many of the drawbacks concerning environmental degradation and yield-inefficiency which we associate with oil production would only persist under this transference and that, moreover, many new problems concerning world food sources would arise.
Though the research process on the subject of biofuels had begun with a neutral orientation, and perhaps even a favorable bias based on the assumptive notion that the world must immediately begin the process of transition from petroleum to an alternative fuel source. However, upon initiating research into the subject, it became wholly apparent that the viable research available overwhelmingly argued that the negative consequences of a shift to biofuel far outweigh the benefits.
The Butler (2008) source would be amongst the more centrist of documents considered. An editorial designed to weigh the lessons learned with regard to the shortcomings of biofuels against the perceived benefits of continued process refinement, this ultimately constitutes one of the few works used here which advocates a continued strategic attention to biofuel development. Though this makes the source contrary to the primary thesis of the research project itself, the article would nonetheless offer some usefully balanced concessions as to the areas in which biofuel research still lags.
Another work which provides an endorsement for biofuel, the article by Dien et al. (2002) is one which is sourced directly to the corn-ethanol industry. Therefore, it is understood in entering a discussion with this document that its intent will be to endorse biofuels as a primary alternative fuel source. In that capacity, this work would be useful for its airing of statistical information and for its explicit counterpoint to the research otherwise produced by the examination.
Helping point the research toward an understanding of how such statistical evidence has been falsely endorsed, the EPA (2008) website is particularly useful. The government agency responsible for administering oversight and enforcement with regard to environmental policy, the EPA is distinctly guilty of over-emphasizing the value of corn-ethanol. This webpage is saturated by the undue attention to this method of alternative fuel, demonstrating the U.S. government to be out of step with current research on the subject.
Contrary to the problematic findings by the government, independent ventures are showing that there are positive ways to gain greater energy efficiency through innovation. As a counterpoint to the gross inefficiency of production methods and times associated with biofuels, the Freeman (2008) article highlights a recent UMass-based experiment which converted burning wood to clean burning fuel in under a minute. Touting a likely cost of between $1 and $1.7 per gallon, the creators of this technology serve as just one example of the many strides which might be made if we are to consciously draw the focus from biofuels and instead place it on innovation in the field of alternative fuel strategy.
Another more forward discussion on the subject, the article by Holt-Gimenez (2007) is a thorough and interesting refutation of biofuel as a viable alternative fuel. It is from this fiery article that much of the research assignment’s assumptions on issues of world food distribution and agricultural shift are culled. The article in question tells in markedly explicit terms how the relationship between the exploitation of land, people and environment as seen at the behest of the oil industry would be instigated by an expansion of the biofuel industry as well.
An important historical document which was used in the research process, the Shappouri et al. (2002) report would constitute what remains today the final word on the subject of biofuel’s value as an alternative fuel source. Officially accepted by the United States government for its endorsement of biofuel as justifying its processes by gaining rather than losing energy as had previously been the case, the document is demonstrably limited in that which it endorses. This helps to establish the case that a gap exists between that which science accepts about biofuels and that which politicians present on the subject.
This is complimented by Thornton’s (2006) concise detraction of ethanol, this article serves as reinforcement for the recurring case that the process of yielding energy from ethanol is too consuming of time and energy, and thus, should be disregarded as a means to developing an alternative fuel source.
The certainty that the world community must attend with urgency to a transition to a clean-burning and effective alternative fuel source dominates discourse today on oil production and energy efficiency. And there is a dominance in this discussion, as well as in current implementation, of the endorsement of biofuels. A clear-burning energy source derived from the fermentation of sugars found in various plant-cellulous, for some time this has been sought as a possible alternative fuel to help aid in our extrication from oil dependency. Accordingly, “the idea is that it can be added to petrol where it both acts as fuel itself, and makes the petrol burn more efficiently and cleanly. Since it is not derived from fossil fuel it should reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help reduce American dependence on Middle Eastern oil.” (Thornton, 1) in this regard, there are considerable positive benefits to the environment, at least when spoken of in comparison to the harmful emissions caused by the burning of fossil fuels. The prospect of an automotive industry powered on biofuel, on the surface, would have appeared as a promising opportunity if properly pursued.
To the case of its advocacy, “biofuel champions assure us that because fuel crops are renewable, they are environment-friendly, can reduce global warming and will foster rural development. But the tremendous market power of biofuel corporations, coupled with the poor political will of governments to regulate their activities, make this unlikely.” (Holt-Gimenez, 2) Such is to say that the vast array of drawbacks to biofuel, relating to shortcomings in the production process and extending to the levying of severe political and economic exploitation on impacted populations suggest that, in fact, this is not an appropriate step forward in altering the global energy strategy.
In spite of the perception that there are likely to be a number of distinct benefits to the environment from the burning of biofuel, as opposed to gasoline, there is also a commonly voiced concern that this alternative is far too inefficient in the yielding process to yet be considered a suitable replacement. Accordingly, “biofuels are derived from plant matter, such as corn, grass, trees or other biomass. Current methods to produce ethanol, a biofuel, involve a multi-step process to extract the sugars in the plant matter and convert them to alcohol over five to 10 days.” (Freeman, 1) This conversion process itself consumes a significant degree of energy and time, and draws speculation that ethanol may not be a particularly practical next step. The argument which has generally been levied since the popular inception in the 1960s and 1970s of the idea that ethanol might constitute a sustainable alternative to fully petroleum burning engine modes, by its detractors, that there is a net energy loss experienced in the refinement. The conversion the corn-based substance into a useable fuel is a process which in and of itself is demanding of a number or resources and process. The general agricultural costs such as natural gas-based fertilizers and mechanical cultivation, as well as the historically prohibitive expenditure of time, transportation and industrial energy to reduce corn cellulose to an ethanol form, help to make the endorsement of ethanol an Achilles heel of biofuel advocacy. And according to current findings, “it is shown here that one burns 1 gallon of gasoline equivalent in fossil fuels to produce 1 gallon of gasoline equivalent as ethanol from corn. When this corn ethanol is burned as a gasoline additive or fuel, its use amounts to burning the same amount of fuel twice to drive a car once.” (Patzek et al., p. 319) Such is to say that those oriented to the discrediting of alternative fuel sources are given ammunition by the fact that distilling, fermenting and yielding grain from corn had until only recently resulted in a total net loss of production energy. It is only now, according to the government’s seminal reference on the subject, 2002’s the Energy Balance of Corn Ethanol, that technology has advanced to a level where there is a net energy gain. According to that report, research had concluded “that the NEV of corn ethanol has been rising over time due to technological advances in ethanol conversion and increased efficiency in farm production. [Researchers] show that corn ethanol is energy efficient as indicated by an energy output:input ratio of 1.34.” (Shapouri, 1)
Still, this resolution does not begin to tell the full story, may of its critics state, of ethanol fuel. Observers are especially left to question endorsements for ethanol when its energy inefficiency in usage is so clear as well. To this end, “it contains one third less energy than gas, which means mileage is 30 to 40% lower.” (Newman, 1) as consistent with the often ruthless and contradictory behaviors of the world oil industry, it has been offered in many circles that the intent behind the aggressive endorsement of corn-based ethanol is a pointedly unrealistic means of changing energy dependency habits. More insidious still is the suggestion that the oil industry and American government both have endorsed this method in spite of significant criticism and empirical dissuasion as a means of torpedoing the credibility of a prominent alternative fuel.
In most regards, scientific evidence dictates that this popularly pursued means of transferring energy dependency to a different source, even if realistic, will be ultimately rather destructive. Most particularly, it is feared that a shift of the focus by world agriculture industry toward the production of fuel would ultimately deter from the use of land for the production of food. The motive would persist to utilize resources, land and labor to the production of the infinitely more profitable purpose of fuel production than food yield. Accordingly, Butler (2008) argues that “the latest econometric models for alternative fuels show us their negative environmental impact, particularly with feedstocks that destroy palm farms or the rainforest. There is also a negative economic impact in the form of rising food prices. In addition, it’s important to remember that even if we use all the arable land in the United States for alternative-fuel production, we’ll only be able to replace a fraction of the diesel fuel the nation currently uses.” (p. 1) This constitutes a meaningful case against current thought with regard to biofuel. It seems wholly unlikely that the interest in combating the violation of human rights would be sufficient to overcome the opportunities for agricultural corporations and oil industries to achieve a remarkably profitable economic nexus.
Indeed, this serves as the great detectable motive for the wholesale endorsement by the U.S. government of an alternative fuel source that has been sufficiently demonstrated to have far too many drawbacks in its present form. Even today, with the dialogue overwhelmingly dominated by environmental and academic parties opposed to an alternative transition which moves in this general directions, the United States government and its oil, auto and agro industry partners have collectively pushed forward with an alternative fuel policy dominated by corn-based ethanol and biofuel strategies. Specifically, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, “the Renewable Fuel Standard program will increase the volume of renewable fuel required to be blended into gasoline to 7.5 billion gallons by 2012. The RFS program was developed in collaboration with refiners, renewable fuel producers, and many other stakeholders.” (EPA, 1)
Today, there is evidence that strides in research are being made everyday to the development of otherwise more efficient fuel production process. Typically, such strides have taken place in the confines of research laboratories and universities, with industries steadfastly resisting the adoption of more efficient technologies. This resistance is harbored by a government which is itself actively engaged already in the development and espousal of corn-ethanol-based strategies. Accordingly, in 2001, “1.77 billion gallons of fuel ethanol were produced in the U.S., over 90% of which was produced from corn. Ethanol demand is expected to more than double in the next several years.” (Dien, 204) Bearing in mind the variety of drawbacks to this approach, it is hard to deduce that there has been any net benefit from this strategy. In particular, it would certainly be impossible to argue that America’s dependence upon oil had in some way diminished. Moreover, the environmental consequences and world food source issues cautioned here above are certainly a threat during this time of energy and commodity-based inflation.
Therefore, it is distinctly problematic, and thus occupies a great deal of focus in this account, that the institutional alternative fuel movement is so notably focused on corn-based ethanol. This is the case to the extent that the United States government has given well-documented and immodest subsidies to large agricultural concerns in the United States under the premise of corn production’s value to the development of a viable alternative fuel source.
These detractions are not devised in any way to suggest that biofuel is not a viable means of alternative energy dependency patterns. Quite to the contrary, this appears as one of the most realistic transitional steps toward the use of a cleaner burning fuel in powering transportation, industrial and recreational demands. However, there emerges an often unspoken threat in the transition suggested by supporters of biofuel, which closely associates the political and economic trespasses of petroleum production with those of corn ethanol. This is to indicate that the wide array of environmental violations, human rights atrocities and socioeconomic exploitations perpetrated by oil companies in pursuit of their key resource are mirrored in the enormous demand that is placed upon biofuel producers for lands, water-sources and laborers in the yield of ethanol. This analogy corresponds problematically with the notable and officially declared effort on the part of industrialized nations in Europe and North America to reduce oil dependency by actively converting to a dependency on biofuels. Accordingly, Holt-Gimenez (2007) states that the U.S. intends by 2020 to produce 35 billion gallons of ethanol per annum.
Holt-Gimenez argues that “these targets far exceed the agricultural capacities of the industrial North. Europe would need to plant 70% of its farmland with fuel crops. The entire corn and soy harvest of the United States would need to be processed as ethanol and biodiesel. Converting most arable land to fuel crops would destroy the food systems of the North, so the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development countries are looking to the South to meet demand.” (p. 1) the implication of ‘looking South’ concerts the long-standing pattern of occupation and exploitation by which industrialized nations pursue production of valued resources in economic contexts where costs are lower and institutional resistance is flimsier.
And even in the United States, where support has been typically and unjustifiably strong for corn ethanol, public officials are drawing a clear connection between the ethanol market and the swelling global food crisis. To this end, “the move by the Republican Senate group is the latest sign that Washington’s support for turning corn into motor fuel is wavering in the face of soaring food prices, despite the popularity of ethanol subsidies in farm states critical to the November election…. There are also signs of anti-ethanol backlash at the state level. The governors of Texas and Connecticut have requested that the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] issue waivers from the mandate, arguing that the ethanol impact on food prices is too onerous. (Knickerbocker, 1)
Given the inherently problematic implications of shifting the focus of the world’s agricultural lands and resources into the production of a fuel source — “as opposed to food and other life-sustaining resources — “the notion of outsourcing the process is tantamount to the outsourcing of its directly associated environmental and socioeconomic drawbacks.
Ultimately, the research conducted here offers a cause to refute fully the interest and policy which have reflected an interest in pursuing biofuel as an alternative to petroleum. Even today, after several generations of technological development, the process of yielding remains modestly to extremely inefficient. Moreover, the model of exploitation and economic aggression demonstrated by the oil industry threatens to consume the global agricultural scheme as well, with food supply being drastically and dangerously cut as a direct consequence.
Recommendations and Conclusion:
Ultimately, while it is fully clear and indisputable that petroleum can no longer be considered an acceptable basis for the world’s fuel economy, technologies relating to energy production through more amenable and sustainable means than biofuel must be considered. The pattern of resource depletion and the resultant imbalance of demand over supply in the oil market would be demonstrated with even more directly problematic consequences in a dominant global biofuel industry. This account constitutes a justification for the pursuit of an alternative fuel source other than biofuel as a replacement for the current global dependency on petroleum.
Butler, M. (2008). Lessons from Biofuels. Greentech. Online at http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/lessons-from-biofuels-10-768.html
Dien, B.; Bothast, R.; Nichols, N. & Cotta, M. (2002). The U.S. Corn Ethanol Industry: An Overview of Current Technology and Future Prospects. Agricultural Research Service, 104, p. 204-211.
Environmental Protection Agency. (2008). Renewable Fuel Standard Program. U.S. Government. Online at http://www.epa.gov/OMS/renewablefuels/.
Freeman, S. (2008). $1 per gallon biofuel touted. The Republic. Online at http://www.masslive.com/springfield/republican/index.ssf?/base/news-13/1207725605294850.xml&coll=1.
Holt-Gimenez, E. (2007). The biofuel myth. International Herald Tribune. Online at http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/07/10/opinion/edholt.php
Knickerbocker, B. (2008). Media survey: Politicians rethink food-based ethanol / the Christian Science Monitor.
Newman, R. (2008). Corn Ethanol. U.S. News and World Report.
Patzek, T.W.; Anti, S.M.; Campos, R.; Ha, K.W.; Lee, J.; Li, B.; Padnick, J. & Yee, S.A. (2004). Ethanol from corn: clean renewable fuel for the future, or drain on our resources and pockets. Environment, Development and Sustainability, Vol. 7, No. 3, p. 319-336.
Shapouri, H.; Duffield, J.A. & Wang, M. (2002). The energy balance of corn ethanol: An Update. Heartland Institute. Online at http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=16324.
Thornton, J. (2006). Ethanol from corn-burning both money and oil. iGreens.org.
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