Ethanol turns U.S. into an alcoholic

Ethanol, the latest hope for an alternative biofuel, may wind up causing more harm than good. Molecularly identical to grain alcohol, or “moonshine,” the gasoline additive claims to be the fuel of the future. But just because it’s “alternative” does not make it green – environmentally oreconomically.

It’s true that ethanol reduces carbon emissions and that the biomass used as feedstock for the fuel absorbs carbon dioxide. Also, it takes only six months to harvest a substantial ethanol fuel crop and that crop can be grown locally.

But adding ethanol to fuel can actually increase nitrogen oxide emissions and reduce the miles per gallon. Producing ethanol is also energy-intensive – one acre of corn can yield 328 gallons of ethanol, but it takes 140 gallons of fossil fuels to raise and convert that corn into fuel.

Economically, ethanol production is a threat to the supply-and-demand system. Corn is in high demand, causing the price to rise. The same corn that was once used to fuel only animals and people is responsible now for fueling cars as well. To meet increased needs, farmland is also in demand. Farmers may cut back on growing other produce to raise more corn, in effect causing meat and vegetable prices to rise.

The shortages such a demand would create could cause protests and starvation, as predicted by Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute. It would be an “epic competition between 800 million people with automobiles and the 2 billion poorest people,” he said.

Environmentally, ethanol is not as sustainable a fuel as some claim. It cannot be run through pipelines, so fossil fuels are necessary to transport it.

Although ethanol helped reduce oil imports by 200 million barrels last year, transporting the biofuel would just reallocate the oil usage.

The increase in corn production would also increase a demand for pesticides and fertilizers. To have any environmental benefit from ethanol-reducing carbon emissions, the chemical manufacturers would need to set emission caps for production.

Farmers clearing land and not rotating crops are also detrimental to the environment. If farmers continually grow corn to meet ethanol feedstock needs, vital nutrients would be depleted from the soil and lead to erosion and excessive pesticide and fertilizer run-off. Clearing forests to make way for corn crops would decrease biodiversity, an important part of healthy ecosystems.

Ethanol is a nice try at experimenting with biofuels, but keeping up ethanol production would keep the nation running on empty.

Jacyln DeVore is a junior majoring in mass comunications.