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Ethanol is robbing food supply

It is not hard to identify some major losers in the legislation and executive orders from our federal government throughout U.S. history. There are depression enhancers like the Embargo Act (1807) and the Smoot-Hawley Tariff (1930); human rights abuse from the Indian Removal Act (1830), the Fugitive Slave Act (1850), the Espionage Act (1917), the Volstead Act (1919), and the executive order interning Japanese Americans; and the war-inducers like the Kansas Nebraska Act (1854) and the Gulf of Tonkin resolution (1964).

With the advantage of hindsight, we can nominate a more recent strong rival for worst legislation honors in the so-called Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007. This law established a Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) which calls for increasing amounts of biomass (primarily corn kernels and soybeans) to be converted into alcohol(ethanol) and biodiesel transportation fuels. 

One result in 2013 is that 40 million prime U.S. crop acres are now devoted to destructive single crop industrial corn production to provide about 7 percent of our gasoline consumption. And the price of corn has more than doubled since 2007. Nitrogen and phosphorous from excess fertilizer is running off the land, creating those dead zones in the Mississippi Basin.

All this led Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, chairman of the Swiss food giant Nestle, to declare that using food crops to make biofuels was “absolute madness.”

To  avoid the future competition with food supplies, EISA also mandates ethanol from cellulosic material such as corn stalks and leaves, grasses, and wood chips. But this material is low density energy versus the concentrated energy in oil products. A study at the University of Utah determined that nature needed to cook 100 tons of ocean algae in shale beneath the sea floor to produce one gallon of crude oil.  

EISA’s schedule called for 500 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol in 2012 and one billion gallons in 2013. There is no effective production process for cellulosic ethanol, and we struggle to produce 6 million gallons/year from research facilities. 

Energy analyst Robert Bryce, author of “Power Hungry; the Myth of Green Energy,” provides the math. To replace 10 percent of U.S. crude oil needs, the U.S. would have to produce about 40 billion gallons annually of cellulosic ethanol. That would necessitate the use of 400 million tons of biomass, enough to fill about 26 million 48 foot semi-trailers. And that line of semi-trailer loads, minus their tractors, would stretch about 240,000 miles, long enough to circle the earth 10 times, or to stretch from the Earth to the Moon.

In 2007, U.S. oil product demand was rising, crude oil production was declining, and oil imports were a significant drag on our balance of payments. The prospect of mandating plentiful corn as a motor fuel looked promising. EISA of 2007 was the result. Then unintended consequences took effect. Prices for grain-intensive foods like cereals, bakery products, meats, poultry, eggs, fats, and oils increased faster than the rate of overall inflation. Soybean and wheat prices rose in concert.

Now fracking drilling technology and other discoveries have turned scarcity into relative abundance. In 2013, oil production has risen 40 percent, and gasoline consumption is just 130 billion gallons/year versus the 150 billion forecasted by the Department of Energy.

We are not energy independent, but the need to stress our agricultural resources to make transportation fuel is gone. We have time to do the research needed for an effective cellulosic ethanol production process. Until then there is no point in planting 40 million acres in low density switch grass, the biomass darling of politicians. Even if we did, we don’t know how to make quantities of ethanol from it. EISA mandates that a minimum of 16 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol be blended into the U.S. auto fuel mix by 2022. That’s more than 2,000 times our current production capability for cellulosic ethanol. 

Passing legislation is easy. Repealing the laws of physics and nature is not so simple.

Let’s send EISA 2007 into the oblivion it merits.

Rolf Westgard is a professional member Geological Society of America and guest faculty on energy subjects for the University of Minnesota’s Lifelong Learning program.