Ethanol In Our Gas Isn’t As Green As You May Think

I have long been an advocate of saving energy.  However living in a small community means I have to travel far and wide to get just about anywhere.  So when you measure the kilometers on my vehicles versus my city brethren, I’m sure I’d be guilty of driving more.  There is not a whole lot I can do about it.

Well, that’s not quite true.  I drive vehicles, which are very fuel-efficient.  Getting over 40 miles per gallon would solve a lot of our greenhouse gas problems.  I might need to drive a lot, but I might as well go farther for less.  Add a little ethanol in the mix and my life just gets greener.

I wish it were all that easy.  In my other life ethanol is causing a huge uproar.  With governments mandating the use of ethanol in our gas tanks, prices for corn have gone up significantly.  This has raised farm revenues not only across Ontario, but also right across North America.

However not all the streets are paved with gold.  It’s become in vogue in some circles to think of bio-fuel or ethanol as some environmental panacea.  Certainly that’s become the case on the rural concessions of Ontario.  But it’s not the case in many environmental circles.  Some think the energy exerted to produce a litre of ethanol is far more than the environmental benefits it gives.

Take corn for example.  Some economists believe growing corn to make ethanol is almost bizarre.  Corn is relatively expensive to grow compared to other ethanol sources like wood chips and switch grass.  It uses large amounts of nitrogen in order to reach maturity.  Nitrogen is produced by using copious amounts of natural gas.  The greenhouse gas metre is off the chart.

That fact is conveniently overlooked in today’s political world.  Politicians who want to look green embrace ethanol as an alternative fuel, which helps supports Canadian farmers.  The Americans do it too, although their policy makes a little more sense.  They want to reduce their dependence on foreign oil, and if that means lots and lots of support for the American corn farmer, so be it.  In both countries expounding anything negative publicly about ethanol is akin to peeing in the breakfast cereal.  There are so many economic benefits to so many people; nobody likes to go there.

There is increasingly another bad side effect, which could derail this ethanol freight train from continuing to roll down the tracks.  While everybody likes to look the other way food prices are set to rise.  Ethanol demand has raised the price of corn almost double.  Corn is the basic foodstuff for cattle, hogs, poultry and other livestock.  This is causing a rippling through the food chain and will eventually show up in higher food prices.

For the North American consumer this is a death wish.  Consumers here unlike Europe have one criterion for their food choices.  Yes, we look for good quality and good selection, but if it isn’t cheap in North America we don’t want it.  An ethanol economy and cheap, cheap food don’t mix.  Increasing ethanol use may make consumers feel greener, but those higher food prices will surely make them feel blue.

That feeling was brought home to me earlier this year when I saw a television interview with President Bush.  He was asked if Americans would be increasingly filling up with ethanol or some other bio-fuel.  He answered by saying he’d want to make sure he could get a fill up in Crawford Texas where his ranch is located.  He was obviously concerned about the availability of these fuels aside from the considerable concerns this whole bio-fuel ripple could cause.  His hesitancy to the issue showed me a lot.

It showed me we’re a long way in this hemisphere from going totally green with bio-fuel.  In short, with our addiction to oil legend, we are a long way from being like Brazil.  Brazil adds ethanol to gasoline at 23% of volume.  Of course pure ethanol is used almost everywhere and is universally available.  New automobiles in Brazil can use gasoline, ethanol or a combination of both.  At the present time about $14 billion US is being invested in new sugar and ethanol plants in Brazil.

I can remember a time past when we had local gas wars in Chatham at a time when oil was much cheaper.  One newspaper report said one guy even tried to fill an old bathtub with cheap gas.  Unbelievable.  However that kind of mentality is in grained in us.  Moving away from that disposition will be even more difficult.  So we might want to be green in this country, but the road to get there won’t necessarily be easy.