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Can words describe how bad corn ethanol is?

By Joe Romm on February 29, 2008 at 4:17 pm

"Can words describe how bad corn ethanol is?"

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Well, maybe not my words, or Mayor Bloomberg’s or those of top scientists, but I think I have found someone’s who does: Opus’s from Bloom Country.

First, however, the lastest grim news from Fortune: “The ethanol boom is running out of gas as corn prices spike.” Yes, “plans for as many as 50 new ethanol plants have been shelved in recent months.” Why?

Spurred by an ethanol plant construction binge, corn prices have gone stratospheric, soaring from below $2 a bushel in 2006 to over $5.25 a bushel today. As a result, it’s become difficult for ethanol plants to make a healthy profit, even with oil at $100 a barrel.

If you can’t make money with oil at $100 a barrel, you are not much of an alternative fuel.

But I know what you’re thinking — if corn ethanol is so bad, what’s wrong with plants being scrapped? Well, the corn ethanol business is here to stay. The corn ethanol mandate from the most recent energy bill requires doubling supply from current levels. Fortune explains what that means:

What probably has changed permanently are ethanol economics. The days of cheap corn are over, and the industry’s new, lower profit margins clearly favor ethanol leader Archer Daniels Midland over all the smaller producers like Verasun, privately-held Poet Energy and the many, many farmer-owned ethanol cooperatives. ADM’s massive 200 million-gallon-a-year ethanol plants simply have better economies of scale than their 50-million-gallon-a-year rivals. And the fact some of ADM’s big plants run on coal instead of natural gas makes ADM’s cost advantage that much greater.

Just what we need, a shakeout that makes ADM richer and corn ethanol even dirtier.

So just how bad is corn ethanol? As bad as a movie reviewed by Opus:

George Phblat’s new film, ‘Benji Saves the Universe,’ has brought the word ‘BAD’ to new levels of badness. Bad acting. Bad effects. Bad everything. This film just oozed rottenness from every bad scene… Simply bad beyond all infinite dimensions of possible badness….

Well maybe not that bad, but Lord, it wasn’t good.

One last thing, as the blogging sustainable farmer Tom Philpott makes clear, the blame for this mess rests first and foremost on a certain big company. Rather than naming names, let’s just say its initials are an anagram for M.A.D.

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11 Responses to Can words describe how bad corn ethanol is?

  1. Beefeater says:

    The complicated history of ethanol is really a case study of why government at all levels will not be the answer to our energy needs. ADM (which was headquartered in MN until 1969) and Cargill (headquartered in MN) “partnered” with the State of MN to force the mandate on gasohol (the 1st state to do so) on the unsuspecting citizens. I was a member of a group opposed to this boondoggle years ago. The Andreas family(ADM) and Cargill/MacMillan family (Cargill) own and control BOTH political parties in Minnesota, and are huge contributors nationally. Dwyane Andreas famously contributed to both Nixon and Humphrey in the 1968 campaign. I could go on for pages but the literature is all available.

    Recently, the Government mandate to replace incandescent bulbs with dirty and dangerous, mercury filled CFLs is just more of the same.

    The old saying “I’m with the Government, and I’m here to help” should send shivers down your spine.

  2. Joe says:

    The CFLs are clean — much, much cleaner than what they replace, including total mercury (plus the mercury is not thrown into the air). No comparison with ethanol. Sorry.

  3. Tom says:

    A year or so ago Fidel Castro stated that the only real accomplishment of the corn ethanol craze would be to drive up the cost of food for the poor nations of the world. Normally I don’t pay too much attention to the Bearded One, but he pointed out the inescapable logic that you can’t burn even part of your food supply without some sort of consequence.
    Many nations (example: Mexico) use corn meal as a basic food staple and the dramatic price increase of corn affects their market prices as well.
    Bio-diesel based on soy beans is also having an effect. Apparently in Asia soy bean paste is used as a basic food staple and because of increased demand for bio-diesel, mainly in Europe, the price of soy beans has increased. I would think the price of tofu has gone up as well.

    CFLs? My local Home Depot takes my used ones no charge.

  4. Peter Foley says:

    As usual the interpretation of the events is false to fact. First is the title, Can Words Describe How Bad Corn Ethanol Is? Is an organic chemical intrinsically bad? Is it like a your mama is so fat ….. Joke? The invisible hand of market economics has signaled the lower need for additional ethanol plants, (the corn plants could be converted to use other feed stocks) does Climate Progress hold that making a profit is bad?
    Have ANY of the other alternative fuels discussed on this blog approached being profitable as the corn to ethanol type?
    US farmers will react to high corn prices as they have in the past—with massive over production, they can’t lose, and the USDA guarantees a minimum price. The blending subsidy is already part of the law for several more years. Any rational business will maximize their income by collecting the handout as much as legally allowed.
    As margins tighten up more plants will convert to the least cost fuel (coal). Most are on rail lines.
    If you really believe ADM is reaping windfall profits buy their stock and use the profits to further your agenda—you would have true guerrilla financing of the green agenda.
    What bio fuel will meet the green’s constantly rising standards?
    Let the world see the facts that prove ADM caused the boom in ethanol plants. If they did, why is their market share so low? ADM may be morally deficient business, but at the end the day they are feeding more people at a lower cost than all the greenies around the world combined. Even at 5.25 a bushel corn is less then ten cents a pound, two pounds a day for 366 days a year equals only 73.20 dollars a year. Even an African can afford that.
    Exports of corn have actually increased during the period of high ethanol production, the miracle of capitalism/free markets at work. Don’t let the facts get in way your “greater” truth.

  5. Jay Alt says:

    I think words will suffice, along with numbers.
    I’m no fan of ADM or their political tentacles. Those range from sponsoring high-profile policy TV shows, a $1 million secret loan to Nixon and commodity price-fixing. Pick any Farm Bill and ADM benefits instead of small farmers with greater needs and whose votes politicians love. Subsidies for ethanol are not well spent nor do they do anything to slow climate change.

    But even ADM can do some things right. They have 4 co-generation plants in 3 states. Is that bad?

    http://climateprogress.org/2008/01/03/a-negative-carbon-corn-ethanol-plant/

    In 2009 they’ll sequester a million tons of CO2 per year and monitor the injection site. Those sorts of studies are needed since DOE treaded water on sequestration so long they’ve nothing ready to test it with.

    http://media.cleantech.com/2255/adm-in-84-3m-carbon-sequestration-project

    They sell their CO2 to bottlers. They market the mash to livestock farmers. They pump excess heat to greenhouses and boost lettuce growth with extra CO2.

    They’re big. They’re bad. And they’re very efficient.

    I thought we liked efficiency here.

  6. infoshaman says:

    Another hidden cost of ethanol fuel is that extinguishing ethanol fires requires a non-standard type of fire-fighting foam and training. When an ethanol tanker truck crashes and catches fire, the fire burns longer as the locals seek help. See http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080226/ap_on_re_us/ethanol_fires

  7. Peter Foley says:

    Infoshaman, Are you a paid shill for the Petroleum industry? A slower burn is safer then an explosion. Did you bother to check out how little an ethanol spill requires to abate compared to the same size of fossil fuel? Please have a little integrity. Out of the tens of thousands of any type of tanker truck on the road every day how many accidents occur a year? Four or Five? Since alcohol is bio-degradable why wouldn’t the Fire department just hose down the wrecked truck? There is no worries about spreading the diesel or gas into the sewers/ground. There is some issues about labeling tankers for the fire departments. A large part of the problem is the way the oil industry has excluded anhydrous alcohol from our nations pipelines based on some denatured alcohol caused corrosion damage to welded tank fittings in long term storage.

  8. Mike says:

    Jay,
    Efficiency in and of itself is not a necessarily a positive value. The Nazis were efficient killers. Efficiency in the use of an unsustainable fuel may encourage people to delay the transition to a sustainable one.

    NEW combined heat and power plants are not necessarily a good idea: if they use natural gas, they are only prolonging our dependence on natural gas. CHP has been oversold, especially if it means building a new nat gas or coal fired CHP plant. CHP using corn may still stoke a basically unsustainable fuel cycle, especially when we consider the ecological and social strain of using the soil and water supply to grow energy.

  9. Ronald says:

    There was a coal burning power plant next to a large city close to where I live that didn’t like the coal plant. They made the electricity provider convert the coal burning plant to natural gas a couple of years ago. When they did that, there was a CHP part of the system that they dismantled that used to heat office space in winter, but couldn’t be done with the natural gas system. They spent a lot of money on the conversion too.

  10. Jay Alt says:

    Mike -
    New combined heat and power plants are clearly a good idea. They will replace part of a less efficient fleet as older plants are retired. They will act as a bridge to get us to lower cost renewables on a declining carbon path. They will maintain a baseload capacity, something renewable energy supplies currently have little or no ability to do.

  11. TheSUBWAY.com says:

    We found an interesting article about the problems with Ethanol on ConsumerReports.org:

    http://blogs.consumerreports.org/cars/2008/03/ethanol-e85.html

    “But there are some problems with increasing ethanol blends. Ethanol contains less energy than gasoline, so increasing the amount of ethanol in gasoline will likely result in lower fuel economy. Increasing standard fuel blends from zero to 10 percent ethanol, as is happening today, has little or no impact on fuel economy. In tests, the differences occur within the margin of error, about 0.5 percent. Further increasing ethanol levels to 20 percent reduces fuel economy between 1 and 3 percent, according to testing by the DOE and General Motors. Evaluations are underway to determine if E20 will burn effectively in today’s engines without impacting reliability and longevity, and also assessing potential impact on fuel economy.”

    TheSUBWAY.com would like to invite readers to post their own views and ideas in TheSUBWAY.com’s Investor Forum:

    http://investor-forum.thesubway.com/