A couple days ago, I published a piece listing 14 studies that have exposed the high costs of the ethanol scam. But I overlooked two points: A new study by Cornell University’s David Pimentel, and the latest numbers showing the amount of corn ethanol distilling capacity that has been idled due to negative margins.
On January 29, Pimentel, a professor of ecology at Cornell University who has been researching the corn ethanol issue for more than two decades, published another report on the costs of producing motor fuel from grain. His article, which has seven co-authors, appeared in the journal Human Ecology. In the article, “Food Versus Biofuels: Environmental and Economic Costs,” Pimentel and his fellow researchers found that “using food and feed crops for ethanol production has brought increases in the prices of US beef, chicken, pork, eggs, breads, cereals, and milk of 10 percent to 20 percent.” It concludes “Using food crops to produce ethanol raises major nutritional and ethical concerns. Nearly 60 percent of humans in the world are currently malnourished, so the need for grains and other basic foods is critical….Growing crops for biofuel not only ignores the need to reduce natural resource consumption, but exacerbates the problem of malnourishment worldwide by turning food grain into biofuel.”
Pimentel’s report provides yet more ammunition for ethanol critics. And while that report is important, Tom Elam, an Indiana-based agricultural economist and a long-time critic of the ethanol industry, reminded me that data is easily obtainable that shows the level of distress in the industry. Ethanol Producer Magazine tracks the number of ethanol plants that have quit producing fuel. Its latest numbers show that 32 ethanol distilleries are now idled. (For those of you scoring at home, see: www.ethanolproducer.com/plant-list.jsp?country=USA&view=idle)
The capacity of the idled plants is 2 billion gallons per year. According to the Renewable Fuels Association, the US now has 12.3 billion gallons of ethanol production capacity. Thus, about 16.1 percent of all the ethanol capacity in the US has been idled due to high corn costs – which are, in part, a result of the ethanol industry’s own demand for grain – and relatively low gasoline prices.
During a brief telephone interview on Thursday, Pimentel told me that he continues to be amazed that Congress still supports the idea of corn ethanol. He is equally dismissive of the concept of cellulosic ethanol, a substance which, in theory, can profitably produce motor fuel from switchgrass, corn stubble, or other biomass. Although promoters have been pushing cellulosic ethanol for decades – and it is now being pushed hard by the Democrats on Capitol Hill — Pimentel’s latest report estimates that the energy return on energy invested in cellulosic ethanol is minus 68 percent. (Pimentel puts the EROEI on corn ethanol at a negative 46 percent. Some of the most-widely cited reports on corn ethanol, particularly those done by the US Department of Agriculture show that corn ethanol has a slightly positive EROEI.) “It’s absolutely ridiculous,” says Pimentel. Congress and others who are promoting the idea “haven’t even done the most basic calculations about what it would mean to make cellulosic ethanol.”
When it comes to making fuel from biomass, he told me, “I wish that it did work. But I’m a scientist first and an agriculturalist second.”
ROBERT BRYCE is the author of Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of “Energy Independence.”