Paul Krugman has it partly right. He points to the absurdity of thinking ethanol will solve our driving fuel problems
There is a place for ethanol in the world’s energy future — but that place is in the tropics. Brazil has managed to replace a lot of its gasoline consumption with ethanol. But Brazil’s ethanol comes from sugar cane. In the United States, ethanol comes overwhelmingly from corn, a much less suitable raw material.
In fact, corn is such a poor source of ethanol that researchers at the University of Minnesota estimate that converting the entire U.S. corn crop — the sum of all our ears — into ethanol would replace only 12 percent of our gasoline consumption.
Still, doesn’t every little bit help? Well, this little bit would come at a very high price compared with the obvious alternative — conservation. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that reducing gasoline consumption 10 percent through an increase in fuel economy standards would cost producers and consumers about $3.6 billion a year. Achieving the same result by expanding ethanol production would cost taxpayers at least $10 billion a year, based on the subsidies ethanol already receives — and probably much more, because expanding production would require higher subsidies.
What’s more, ethanol production has hidden costs. Even the Department of Energy, which is relatively optimistic, says that the net energy savings from replacing a gallon of gasoline with ethanol are only the equivalent of about a quarter of a gallon, because of the energy used to grow corn, transport it, run ethanol plants, and so on. And these energy inputs come almost entirely from fossil fuels, so it’s not clear whether promoting ethanol does anything to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
Massive production of corn -- and worse, genetically altered corn -- adds to the destruction of the ecological balance. Large-scale cultivation of a single crop ruins the environment in the long and sometimes short run. What's your crop? Are you a member of the green lawn club? What's your poison? Zoysia, bermuda, St. Augustine? Already you're adding significantly to global climate change, not to forget what's happening our aquifers. In the same way, if you plow up hundred of acres of natural grasses and replace them with corn, you're not only creating conditions which ultimately affect our weather, you're removing some of the best natural products which already provide a very efficient form of fuel when converted to ethanol. Yes, the old grasses -- the blue stems, the gramas, the Indian grass -- are great sources. They're already there and they don't depend on corporations to create them.
And we haven't even touched the politics and the corporatism of the issue. Candidates at the top of the list of Democratic candidates are tied into the same system of corporations and favors as Republicans.
Even after the Bushies are gone, bad energy policy ideas will have powerful constituencies, while good ideas won’t. Subsidizing ethanol benefits two well-organized groups: corn growers and ethanol producers (especially the corporate giant Archer Daniels Midland). As a result, it’s bad policy with bipartisan support. For example, earlier this month legislation calling for a huge increase in ethanol use was introduced by five senators, of whom four, including presidential aspirants Barack Obama and Joseph Biden, were Democrats. In a recent town meeting in Iowa, Hillary Clinton managed to mention ethanol twice, according to The Politico.
As Krugman writes, the answer is conservation. He's right. The corn candidates are not on my list. The conservation candidates are.