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Summer 2007               Fueling Our Future

E85 Corn Ethanol
Ranking: Red

Verdict:
Stop the corn ethanol industry.  E85 corn ethanol is a climate, food security, and national security disaster, not a climate solution.

What is it?:
The vast majority of ethanol in the US, about 95 percent, comes from corn, while sugarcane is used as an ethanol feedstock throughout Latin America. Sugars and starches in the corn kernels or sugarcane are fermented and turned into alcohol, which is then used as fuel.

Pros:
  • Corn ethanol is preferable as an oxygenating gasoline additive (making up 2-10 percent of gas) over MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether), which was once widely used in gasoline. The US Environmental Protection Agency has warned that MTBE is a possible carcinogen, and the danger of pollution from leaking MTBE tanks has prompted many states to ban the use of MTBE in gasoline. In the future, however, it would be better to use an environmentally preferable feedstock, like cellulosic biomass, to make the ethanol needed for this use.
Cons:
  • While the corn used to make ethanol does absorb CO2 as it grows, ethanol production consumes significant amounts of electricity. When taking into consideration the lifecycle emissions of corn ethanol, including the use of petroleum-based fertilizers and the power used to convert corn into alcohol, the University of Minnesota found that using pure corn ethanol results in only a 12 percent reduction in life-cycle emissions over gasoline—which becomes 11 percent when you use E85. Though many current corn ethanol plants are powered by natural gas, Robert McIlvaine, president of Illinois-based research group McIlvaine Company, believes that almost all of the 190 plants slated for construction in the coming decade will run on coal—so that emission statistic is only going to get worse.
  • Reducing our dependence on foreign oil through corn ethanol use isn’t remotely feasible. Switching out the 200 billion gallons of fuel used by US drivers each year for corn ethanol would require 71 percent of our current farmland—an impossible demand on our agricultural system.  (For an in-depth analysis of why corn ethanol is not the answer to our climate change and national security woes, click here.)
  • The growing demand for corn ethanol has already affected grain prices on the world market. US dairy farmers and people around the world who depend on corn as a staple of their diet are already feeling the effects of this price increase, which is likely to keep climbing.
  • Corn uses large amounts of pesticides, and nitrate runoff from corn fields is already polluting US water sources. Most of the corn planted in the US is genetically engineered, and more new breeds are being designed specifically for ethanol production, risking contamination of nearby fields.
  • Sugarcane hasn’t proven to be a better substitute for corn. Brazil has begun clearcutting rainforest to plant sugarcane for ethanol—a climate disaster.
Current status:
Many gasoline blends already contain small amounts of ethanol as an additive. To use a higher blend, you need a flex-fuel vehicle—which can run on gasoline or ethanol blends up to E85. There are about 1,200 stations around the country offering E85, and dozens of flex-fuel cars currently on the market.

According to the Renewable Fuels Association, existing and planned ethanol plants will produce 6.3 billion gallons of corn ethanol in the next year, covering three percent of our annual fuel consumption. The government offers many incentives for corn ethanol production and use.

Most experts think that cellulosic ethanol (which uses plant waste, not just seeds) holds more promise for mass production and reaping environmental benefits. Unfortunately, almost all of the ethanol plants slated for construction are designed to process corn ethanol, and they cannot be used to make cellulosic ethanol.

Should You Make the Switch?:

No. An ethanol-powered car won’t substantially reduce your overall carbon footprint—which is vital if we hope to curb the climate crisis. The potential of creating a world food crisis looms large with corn ethanol, and there are far better choices to achieve oil independence. Help raise the alarm about the problems with corn ethanol, and encourage car manufacturers and politicians to support a transition to better fuels and improved vehicle efficiency.

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