Sunday, January 06, 2008

Is Ethanol Leading To Higher Gasoline Prices?

The inimitable Vodkapundit, Stephen Green linked to a post by Frank Williams at The Truth About Cars which once again makes the point that corn-based ethanol may be not be the ideal substitute for fossil fuel. He cites a letter to the editor of The Greely Tribune (Colorado) by professor emeritus Don Elliott of UNC:

"As your excellent article "Clouds hover in ethanol skies" in Sunday's Tribune points out, ethanol is less expensive per gallon and emits fewer pollutants than gasoline per gallon. This sounds good; however, per mile driven, ethanol actually costs more and is responsible for more greenhouse gases than gasoline.

The SUV referenced in your article gets 14 mpg on gasoline, but only 10 mpg on E85. Thus, it requires 40 percent more E85 than gasoline to drive the same distance.

For example, each 70 miles driven would require 5 gallons of gasoline versus 7 gallons of E85. Using the $2.67 per gallon for gasoline and $2.09 for E85 referenced in your article, the five gallons of gasoline would cost $13.35, whereas the seven gallons of E85 would cost $14.63 (i.e. 9.6 percent more per mile driven).

Since fossil fuels are currently being used in the production of U.S. corn ethanol, the production and use of one gallon of ethanol emits 16.2 pounds of greenhouse gases compared to 20.4 pounds for gasoline, according to the article "Green Dreams" in the October 2007 National Geographic (p.44).

This also sounds good, but for the SUV example above, the five gallons of gasoline would result in 102 pounds of greenhouse gases, whereas the seven gallons of E85 would result in 117.81 pounds of greenhouse gases (i.e. 15.5 percent more per mile driven).

This, along with the other concerns pointed out in your article, makes one wonder if it is a good idea to ramp up the U.S. production of ethanol unless production methods for corn ethanol can be found that significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions or alternate fuel crops such as switchgrass are used to produce most of the ethanol."

This seems to answer a question I raised in an earlier post about whether the lower energy content of ethanol compared to gasoline would mean you'd just end up burning more of it.

As I've also learned, it may require as much as 1.3 gallons of fossil fuel to produce 1 gallon of ethanol. We have been seeing persistently high gas prices lately and oil is hovering around $100 per barrel. We are also seeing higher prices at the grocery store for food as the cost of transporting it has risen and the diversion of corn from the food supply to ethanol production has driven its cost up.

Could the ramp up in ethanol production be what is driving our high fuel prices? For every gallon of gas we are diverting to ethanol production that's a gallon of gas that is not available to satisfy the demand for fuel to put in our tanks, i.e., ethanol production is creating a scarcity of fuel and driving up the price, both at the pump and the wellhead. Ironically, we may be making OPEC even richer, even as we are supposedly trying to become less dependent on foreign oil. Ethanol is a piss-poor substitute for oil if we have to use more of it to produce the ethanol. If we want a good substitute for foreign oil, the best candidate is domestic oil. That means we need to develop ANWR, drill off the coast of Florida and the East and West coasts. The potential for environmental damage is hardly any greater than the actual damage being caused now by corn-based ethanol production.

Update: Added link to Stephen Green's specific post. He just changed his blogging software and I couldn't figure out how to permalink before. It's the actual post title. D'oh!
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