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A greenhouse gas

30 Mar 2022 | OP ED Watch

Don’t take our word for it that the people making policy are neither as smart as they claim nor as pure. Well, do. But consider also a video on ethanol from the popular “Engineering Explained” YouTube channel. (Seriously. With a name like that and 3.18 million subscribers, it definitely qualifies as “popular”.) In this particular item, presenter Jason Fenske explains based on a new study from the University of Madison Wisconsin that, in essence, this heavily subsidized fuel additive actually gives off more CO2 than the fossil fuel it supposedly replaces. About a quarter more. So the problem here isn’t some “denier” saying the more CO2 the merrier. It’s a huge, multibillion-dollar program whose knock-on effects include worsening world hunger that, on its own terms of reference, is incredibly stupid. And its supporters, with some self-interested exceptions, just haven’t thought it through.

Ethanol is huge business. As Fenske notes, it makes up about 10% of all the gasoline sold in the U.S. And it does so because the 2005 Renewable Fuel Standard aimed to reduce emissions (although it’s noteworthy that ethanol has been around a lot longer, with the rationale for the subsidies shifting while the subsidies themselves do not, a point to which we shall return). And the theory was that when you burn oil that came from plants that died hundreds of millions of years ago, there’s no carbon sink, but with corn, since you keep growing more, there is; the CO2 that is released one year is, at least in part, recaptured the next. Which is plausible on the surface. But what happens if you do the math?

The curious thing is, most ethanol proponents never bothered. It’s odd, since if you believed there was a problem that threatened human civilization and possibly much more besides, something that could “destroy” the Earth to hear Al Gore and others tell it, you’d probably want to check your solution for practicality. Twice even. So Fenske did.

Let us repeat here that he’s no climate skeptic. At the end of the notes on the video he writes “What’s the solution? We need to choose options that have a greater percentage of net emissions reductions, so that we don't unintentionally increase emissions if regulators estimated predictions are incorrect.” So the question here is simply whether the people leaping into action, and shouting at anyone who raises doubts, have any real idea what they’re proposing. And again, the answer is no.

The drawbacks of ethanol are considerable, including that it manages to be more corrosive to engine parts than gasoline. Which matters because of course parts, original or spare, need to be manufactured, and manufacturing requires energy which generally speaking releases GHGs. We won’t recap the whole video, which is a masterpiece of concision at just under 13 minutes. Instead we invite you to watch it and discover how it is that such things as the GHG footprint of farming and the impact of changing land-use patterns counteract the naïve assumption that corn sucks in CO2 and oilfields don’t so it must be better. And how even the best-case scenario for ethanol in this respect make a trivial difference.

Meanwhile we will note, as promised above, that the original ethanol subsidy program was intended to reduce American dependence on foreign oil back in the 1970s, with the post-Yom-Kippur-War energy crisis of 1973 then the post Iranian-revolution one. And once farmers started farming the treasury for corn subsidies, and by farmers we don’t mean Henry and Martha so much as giant conglomerates, and rewarding politicians who funneled the money to them, it created an unwholesome “public choice theory” dynamic that defies efforts at reform. And that diverts an astounding proportion of American farmland to corn and then an astounding proportion of the American corn crop to fuel ethanol, reducing the supply and thus increasing the cost of this diet staple. And if arguably people in the developed world could get by with less corn and especially less of the high-fructose corn syrup that advanced industrial methods extract from it and apply directly to your belly, there are all kinds of people in the world for whom higher food prices spell disaster (especially with Ukrainian and Russian wheat likely to be less available this year).

As Fenske adds, ethanol has merits. It amps up the octane count of fuel which improves engine efficiency in ways that prolong its life into the bargain and also reduces the carbon monoxide (CO rather than CO2) in exhaust. But what it doesn’t do is what it’s meant to do, reduce GHG emissions. Never mind debating whether the crisis is real. If you think it is, you would not want to subsidize ethanol on a massive scale. And yet they do.

So it’s surprisingly straightforward that ethanol is not a good solution to man-made global warming, if any. And thus that the advocates have not thought it through. Which should make a sensible person wonder what else they haven’t thought through.

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