The Great Yellow Hope

I’ve been traveling in the American Corn Belt this past week, and wherever I go, people are talking about the promise of ethanol. Corn-distillation plants are popping up across the country like dandelions, and local ethanol boosters in Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa and even Washington State (where Bill Gates is jumping into the business) are giddy at the prospect of supplanting OPEC with a homegrown, America-first corn cartel. But as much as I’d like to have a greener fuel to power my car, I’m afraid corn-based ethanol is not that fuel.

In principle, making fuel from plants makes good sense. Instead of spewing fossilized carbon into the atmosphere, you’re burning the same carbon that a plant removed from the air only a few months earlier — so, theoretically, you’ve added no additional carbon. Sounds pretty green — and would be, if the plant you proposed to make the ethanol from were grown in a green way. But corn is not.

The way we grow corn in this country consumes tremendous quantities of fossil fuel. Corn receives more synthetic fertilizer than any other crop, and that fertilizer is made from fossil fuels — mostly natural gas. Corn also receives more pesticide than any other crop, and most of that pesticide is made from petroleum. To plow or disc the cornfields, plant the seed, spray the corn and harvest it takes large amounts of diesel fuel, and to dry the corn after harvest requires natural gas. So by the time your “green” raw material arrives at the ethanol plant, it is already drenched in fossil fuel. Every bushel of corn grown in America has consumed the equivalent of between a third and a half gallon of gasoline.

And that’s before you distill the corn into ethanol, an energy-intensive process that requires still more fossil fuel. Estimates vary, but they range from two-thirds to nine-tenths of a gallon of oil to produce a single gallon of ethanol. (The more generous number does not count all the energy costs of growing the corn.) Some estimates are still more dismal, suggesting it may actually take more than a gallon of fossil fuel to produce a gallon of our putative alternative to fossil fuel.

Making ethanol from corn makes no more sense from an economic point of view. The federal government offers a tax break of 54 cents for every gallon of ethanol produced, and this incentive is what has generated the enthusiasm for ethanol refining: the spigot of public money is open and the pigs are rushing to the trough. (At the same time, the government protects domestic ethanol producers by imposing a tariff of 54 cents a gallon on imported ethanol.) According to the Wall Street Journal, it will cost U.S. taxpayers $120 for every barrel of oil saved by making ethanol. Some “savings.” This is very good news indeed for Archer Daniels Midland, the agricultural processing company that controls about 30 percent of the ethanol market. (And, it would seem, a comparable percentage of the U.S. Congress, which has been showering the company with ethanol subsidies since the days when Bob Dole of Kansas was known as the senator from A.D.M.)

Absurd as it is, the rush to turn our corn surplus into ethanol appears unstoppable, and the corn belt, laboring under the weight of falling corn prices for the past several years, is celebrating the great good fortune of $3-a-gallon gas prices. We’re desperate for alternatives, and all that corn is waiting to be distilled. As corn prices rise (and the giddiness has already given them a bump), farmers will be tempted to produce yet more corn, which is not good news for the environment this whole deal is supposed to help. Why not? Because farmers will apply more nitrogen to boost yields (leading to more nitrogen pollution) and, since soy bean prices are down, they will be tempted to return to a “corn-on-corn” rotation. That is, rather than rotate their corn crops with soy beans (a legume that builds nitrogen in he soil), farmers will plant corn year after year, requiring still more synthetic nitrogen and doing long-term damage to the land.

It’s not easy being green.

But just because making ethanol from corn is an environmentally and economically absurd proposition doesn’t mean ethanol made from other plants is a bad idea. If you can make ethanol from a plant that doesn’t take so much energy to grow in the first place, the economics and energetics begin look a lot better. The Brazilians make ethanol from sugar cane, a perennial crop that doesn’t require nearly as much fossil fuel to grow. Switch grass, too, is a perennial crop that grows just about anywhere, requires little or no fertilizer and needs no plowing or annual replanting. And although the technology for making ethanol from grasses (cellulosic ethanol — distilled from plant cellulose rather than starch) is not quite there yet, it holds real potential.

So why the stampede to make ethanol from corn? Because we have so much of it, and such a powerful lobby promoting its consumption. Ethanol is just the latest chapter in a long, sorry history of clever and profitable schemes to dispose of surplus corn: there was corn liquor in the 19th century; feedlot meat starting in the 1950’s and, since 1980, high fructose corn syrup. We grow more than 10 billion bushels of corn a year in this country, far more than we can possibly eat — though God knows we’re doing our best, bingeing on corn-based fast food and high fructose corn syrup till we’re fat and diabetic. We probably can’t eat much more of the stuff without exploding, so the corn lobby is targeting the next unsuspecting beast that might help chomp through the surplus: your car.