The Economics of Ethanol. (Alternative Fuels)

By Potera, Carol | Environmental Health Perspectives, January 2002 | Go to article overview

The Economics of Ethanol. (Alternative Fuels)


Potera, Carol, Environmental Health Perspectives


The conversion of corn into ethanol to produce gasohol (a gasoline-ethanol mixture) is touted by some scientists as an economical and environmentally cleaner alternative to fossil fuels. However, ethanol production is neither economical nor environmentally sound, concludes David Pimentel, a professor of insect ecology and agricultural science at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. According to a study by Pimentel that appears in the third edition of the Encyclopedia of Physical Science and Technology, published in October 2001, 1.7 times more energy is required to grow and process corn and then distill the ethanol than is obtained from burning it. "The myth is that ethanol frees us from dependence on oil, yet we actually import oil to run ethanol plants and grow corn," Pimentel says.

In addition, most other economic calculations of ethanol production have ignored the costs of environmental damage associated with corn production. "Corn uses more herbicides and pesticides than any other U.S. crop," says Pimentel. In addition, he says, corn production erodes soil about 12 times faster than the soil can be naturally reformed, and irrigating corn depletes groundwater 25% faster than the natural recharge rate. Pimentel calculates that if the average automobile in the United States, traveling 10,000 miles a year, were to be fueled by ethanol, seven times more cropland would be required for fuel than is currently devoted to feeding one American citizen. He further contends that if the current $1 billion in federal and state subsidies were dropped, ethanol production "could not float on its own."

In contrast, Estimating the Net Energy Balance of Corn Ethanol: An Economic Research Service Report, a 1995 report by Hosein Shapouri, James A. Duffield, and Michael S. Graboski of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, claims that the net energy content of ethanol runs 1.2 times more than the fossil energy needed to produce it. …

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