Ethanol fuel, not as green as you may think

Recently I’ve been seeing television ads promoting use of ethanol. The ethanol industry is founded solely on the myth that we must reduce our use of fossil fuels, even though the U.S. has abundant supplies. The feds have bought into that myth and have rewarded the ethanol industry with more than $25 billion in federal handouts. Big agribusiness, such as Archer Daniels Midland have been promoting ethanol use. But ethanol is not as green as alleged.

Energy Efficiency

Currently, seasonal gasoline is 10% ethanol, but E85 (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline) is being touted as a solution to our dependence on foreign petroleum sources. Ethanol contains less energy than gasoline. Consumer Reports (Oct., 2006) tested E85 in a 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe FFV (flexible fuel vehicle). CR found that E85 delivered 27% lower mileage compared to gasoline in the same vehicle. The Tahoe traveled 300 miles on a tank of E85 compared with 440 miles on gasoline, so you will have to fill the tank more often with E85. Use of the E85 fuel will cost more than gasoline to get the same energy output (depending on relative price). Because of the way Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) standards are structured, more large, gas-guzzling vehicles are being built as FFVs. The result is that use of E85 has actually increased national gasoline usage by about 1%.   The energy budget of ethanol is under debate. Some studies show that ethanol takes 30% more energy to produce than the ethanol contains. For instance, a study at Berkeley (Natural Resources Research, Vol. 14:1, 65-76), on the energy input-yield ratios of producing ethanol from corn, switch grass, and wood biomass, as well as for producing biodiesel from soybean and sunflower plants, concluded that corn ethanol requires 29% more fossil energy than the fuel produced; switch grass requires 45 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced; and wood biomass requires 57 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.  


Health Implications 

Use of E85 in vehicles poses a significant health risk according to a study from Stanford University. The study found:  


that E85 vehicles reduce atmospheric levels of two carcinogens, benzene and butadiene, but increase two others-formaldehyde and acetaldehyde. As a result, cancer rates for E85 are likely to be similar to those for gasoline. However, in some parts of the country, E85 significantly increased ozone, a prime ingredient of smog.

Inhaling ozone-even at low levels-can decrease lung capacity, inflame lung tissue, worsen asthma and impair the body’s immune system, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The World Health Organization estimates that 800,000 people die each year from ozone and other chemicals in smog.

E85 increased ozone-related mortalities in the United States by about 200 deaths per year compared to gasoline, with about 120 of those deaths occurring in Los Angeles These mortality rates represent an increase of about 4 percent in the U.S. and 9 percent in Los Angeles above the projected ozone-related death rates for gasoline-fueled vehicles in 2020.

Environmental Concerns 

It takes 1,700 gallons of water to produce one gallon of ethanol according to a Wall Street Journal report of a Cornell study. A study from Virginia Polytechnic Institute found that “the most water-efficient energy sources are natural gas and synthetic fuels produced by coal gasification. The least water-efficient energy sources are fuel ethanol and biodiesel.”  
Corn ethanol, produced in any quantity to make a difference in oil imports, will take massive amounts of land, destroy habitat and forests, and threaten our food supply.  

The Competitive Enterprise Institute estimates that it would take 546 million acres of U.S. farmland to replace all of our current gasoline use with corn ethanol. Currently, the U.S. has 440 million acres under cultivation to produce all our food and fiber. [Source]     

“In 1997, the U.S. GAO found that the ethanol production process produces more nitrous oxide and other powerful greenhouse gases than does gasoline production. A decade later, Colorado scientists Jan Kreider and Peter Curtiss concluded that carbon dioxide emissions in the production cycle are about 50 percent higher for ethanol than for traditional fossil fuels.” [Source, Ethanol: Unintended Consequences]

Ethanol is for drinking, not for burning.





  1. Mark Jacobson, the Stanford researcher you quoted did another study recently in which he found that soot from the burning of fossil fuels and solid biofuels such as wood and dung is second only to carbon dioxide in it’s global warming potential. So that rules out the use of gasoline, diesel, coal, wood and dung as well.
    It almost appears as though ethanol wasn’t the problem, energy is. The question is, what portion of the world’s population would be able to survive without the use of ethanol, gasoline, diesel, coal, wood and dung?
    BTW, how many of those 1700 gallons of water to produce one gallon of ethanol comes from rainfall?

  2. So basically – John D. Rockefeller for the gas tank and George Jones to get tanked?
    ‘Well in North Carolina, way back in the hills
    Me and my old pappy had a hand in a still
    We brewed white lightnin’ ’til the sun went down
    Then he’d fill him a jug and he’d pass it around
    Mighty, mighty pleasin, pappy’s corn squeezin’
    Whshhhoooh . . . white lightnin’

    Well the “G” men, “T” men, revenuers, too
    Searchin’ for the place where he made his brew
    They were looking, tryin to book him, 
    But my pappy kept a-cookin’
    Whshhhoooh . . . white lightnin’

  3. ”Unlike MTBE, little is known about the impacts of ethanol releases into groundwater or the environment. However, because ethanol is the primary ingredient of beverage alcohol, which is classified by the California Proposition 65 Committee and other cancer experts as a human carcinogen, many are concerned about the possibility that ethanol may pose a cancer risk. Additionally, independent researchers have determined that ethanol in groundwater can extend plumes of other more potent gasoline carcinogens (benzene, toluene, etc.) up to 25%. In addition, ethanol is less effective than MTBE at fighting air pollution, and due to transportation and supply problems, will likely increase gasoline prices.”

    Stella Sez, Hemmings Motor News, July 2000…

  4. You do realize that the Berkeley study you mentioned is from 2005, right? Maybe if you’re going to use a source to support your cause against an industry who is seeing a vast amount of technological advances everyday, then you should use research relevant to the time. A lot has happened in 5 years. I urge you to look it up.  Also, I believe the Berkeley study you mentioned is the same one that estimates that ethanol produces 13% less greenhouse-gas emissions than gasoline.

    I also find it interesting that you used an excerpt from a Stanford University study, that is also outdated when considereing the technological advances that have occurend in the ethanol industry since 2006. I also find this study questionable due to the fact the researcher was funded by Exxon. Go ahead, look it up. I would hate for you to take my word for it, when you can look up the facts for yourself.

    Word to the wise from David Blume of PSEC, “The basic rule one should follow when hearing a negative study on alcohol is to first ask ‘How am I being manipulated against my own best interest.'”

    It astounds me that people are falling into the lies and myths of alcohol without researching where the information is coming from and who is supporting it. Don’t believe everything you hear.

    1. By the way, David Blume is an ethanol expert. Perhaps we should be getting thet truth for people who know what they’re talking about.

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