Senator James Imhofe of Oklahoma has called global warming the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people. He's wrong - the Iraq War is the greatest hoax. But in second place is the hype over corn-based ethanol, touting it as a "green" fuel, because it is claimed to produce less carbon dioxide than other fuels.Listed below are the pounds of CO2 produced from burning one pound of ethanol and the common fossil fuels:Ethanol 1.9; gasoline 3.1; natural gas 2.75; coal 3.7.
On first glance, it would appear that ethanol produces 39 percent less CO2 than gasoline. However, ethanol is heavier than gasoline (6.6 versus 5.6 pounds per gallon). So burning ethanol produces 12.5 pounds of CO2 (6.6 x 1.9) per gallon, which is only 28 percent less than the 17.4 pounds (5.6 x 3.1) per gallon of gasoline.But to get the whole story, we have to look beyond these figures and examine how gasoline and ethanol are produced, and the amount of energy consumed in their production. To properly compare the true CO2 output associated with these two fuels, the energy required for drilling wells, pumping oil out of them, shipping much of it across the ocean, and refining it to produce gasoline, versus the energy required to plant, fertilize, cultivate and harvest corn, ferment it to produce ethanol, and then distill off the ethanol, needs to be taken into account.This demands a little bit of arithmetic, so please bear with me. The amount of energy consumed to produce and deliver overseas oil to the refinery, plus that required for "cracking" and distilling gasoline, is about 20 percent of that of the products produced, of which gasoline constitutes approximately 50 percent, the rest being oil, diesel fuel, etc. The source of most of this energy is petroleum itself, so the true amount of CO2 going into the atmosphere as a result of producing and burning a gallon of gasoline is about 20.9 pounds (17.4 x 1.20).
By comparison, the amount of energy needed to produce ethanol is about 95 percent of the energy obtained by burning the ethanol. Most of this energy comes from a mixture of natural gas, petroleum, and coal. The average CO2 produced by burning these fuels is 3.2 pounds of CO2 per pound. Therefore, the amount of CO2 generated in the production of a gallon of ethanol is 20.0 pounds (3.2 x 6.6 x 0.95). Adding to this, the CO2 given off from burning the ethanol as a fuel (12.5 pounds per gallon), we get a total of 32.5 pounds of CO2 going into the atmosphere from the production and combustion of a gallon of ethanol. Thus, instead of adding 28 percent less CO2 to the atmosphere, a gallon of ethanol actually adds 55 percent more CO2 than a gallon of gasoline.So why is our government touting ethanol so long and loud? It's strictly a propaganda campaign to make the administration look good, and to justify the subsidies being given to the ethanol industry out of the taxes we pay.In addition to that cost, because of the increased demand for corn for ethanol production (which had doubled the cost of corn), we are also having to pay more for a large range of corn-based food products, including cereals, corn meal, meat, eggs, vegetable oils, widely-used sweeteners, and a whole lot of other products. Ethanol - good for the environment and good for our economy? Don't buy it!
And then there's the government's promotion of oil shale as our next fuel source. That smells like just another hoax sucking up another chunk of what we pay in taxes. Isn't it great to be on the receiving end of subsidies?Hal Sundin's column appears every other Thursday in the Post Independent.