It was just a short, filler article buried on page 13 of the Arizona Daily Star: “Rising demand for corn from ethanol producers is pushing U.S. reserves to the lowest point in 15 years, a trend that could lead to higher grain and food prices.”
In contrast, the media have been falling all over themselves speculating on the dangers of radiation from the leaking reactor at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear facility. Although the earthquake and tsunami there have been responsible for about 18,000 deaths, none, so far, have been attributed to radiation.
The consequences from our increasing use of ethanol have not received much press. A report by Dr. Indur Goklany, writing in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons (Volume 16 Number 1, Spring 2011), estimates that at least 192,000 excess deaths and 6.7 million additional Disability-Adjusted Life Years lost to disease have been caused by using food crops to make ethanol for fuel. These deaths have been mainly in third world countries where the rise in price of food staples or the loss of availability of food puts people over the edge. In these cases, being green is fatal.
Goklany’s report cited two studies using World Bank and World Health Organization data. Both studies covered 90% of the developing world’s population and “both indicate that higher biofuel production increases global poverty, even in the longer term.” See the full study here: http://www.jpands.org/vol16no1/goklany.pdf .
A rationale for using ethanol is to cut our dependence of foreign oil. But, so far, our increasing use of ethanol has not cut this dependence.
According to a report from the Manhattan Institute,
Between 1999 and 2009, U.S. ethanol production increased seven-fold, to more than 700,000 barrels per day (bbl/d). During that period, however, oil imports increased by more than 800,000 bbl/d. (In addition, U.S. oil exports—yes, exports—more than doubled, to about 2 million bbl/d.) Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show that oil imports closely track domestic oil consumption. Over the past decade, as oil demand grew, so did imports. When consumption fell, imports did as well. Ethanol production levels had no apparent effect on the volume of oil imports or on consumption.
Why didn’t increasing use of ethanol affect oil imports? According to the Manhattan Institute:
The answer to that question requires an understanding of the refining process. When sent through a refinery, a barrel of crude yields different “cuts,” which range from light products such as propane and butane to heavy products such as asphalt. Even the best-quality barrel of crude (42 gallons) yields only about 20 gallons of gasoline. Furthermore, certain types of crude oil, such as light sweet, a high-quality, low-sulfur grade, are better suited than others to gasoline or diesel production. Even the most technologically advanced oil refineries cannot produce just one product from a barrel of crude; they must produce several, and the market value of those various cuts is constantly fluctuating.
The implication is obvious: Corn ethanol has not reduced the volume of oil imports, or overall oil use, and likely never will, because it can replace only one segment of the crude-oil barrel. Unless or until inventors come up with a substance (or substances) that can replace all of the products refined from a barrel of crude oil—from gasoline to naphtha and diesel to asphalt—this country, along with every other one, will have to continue to rely on the global oil market—the biggest, most global, most transparent, most liquid market in human history.
That brings us to some ethical questions. Should we use food crops to make fuel? One entity addressing those questions is the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary. (See report)
First they note:
Recent research suggests that assumed GHG benefits from increased use of corn-based ethanol may have been overstated. Emissions from indirect land use change occur when biofuels production displaces agricultural production, leading to additional land use change elsewhere. Some studies suggest this land use change ultimately causes an increase in net greenhouse gas emissions. When such market-driven effects are included, the lifecycle GHG emissions for U.S. corn-ethanol may increase from 135 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per megajoule to 177 g CO2e/MJ, which is nearly double that of gasoline at 92 g CO2e/MJ.
The Calgary paper then asks and discusses four questions:
1. Should biofuel production be managed with regard to effects on food and agriculture critical to poor populations?
2. Biomass typically produces less energy per unit of land over short time scales when compared with other sources of energy. Should we be developing low intensity energy if it results in the destruction of more land and natural areas than high intensity energy?
3. Land use impacts of large scale biofuel production may be significant and are likely to be persistent. Should we only be focusing on the ecological after-effects of climate change rather than the land impacts created by potential changes in energy systems?
4. Should we consider potential effects on rural and urban economies?
The report concludes in part:
There is a missing link today between methods of energy policy development and ethical considerations associated with broader social decision- making. Because the ethical implications of the transitions to new energy systems are seldom considered, the choices we make may have negative moral consequences and corresponding social costs.
In a previous post, I noted that increased use of ethanol fuel, especially E85, significantly increases ozone, a prime ingredient of smog, which 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.
Ethanol may be the darling of the politically correct, but it is not the darling of the environment.