Opponents of corn-based ethanol say it takes food off the table and puts it into our cars. Supporters, though, say it’s cheaper for the consumer and that it helps offset carbon emissions from vehicle exhaust. Despite the controversy, ethanol is supported by governments and industry worldwide. The U.S. Department of Energy says at least 12 countries around the world have government or private ethanol programs, including the United States, Brazil, Indonesia, France and Kenya. The European Union also has plans to phase in a 10 percent ethanol blend – such as what is currently found in most U.S. gas stations.
Less than 10 years ago, U.S. lawmakers helped put ethanol into gasoline-powered cars with a mandate and subsidies to keep costs down. The U.S. Senate recently voted to end those subsidies early. Surprisingly, an ethanol manufacturing group also says it’s time to end the ethanol subsidies.
President of Growth Energy, Jim Nussle, says consumers should be able to make a choice about what they put in their tanks. He would like to see more flex fuel pumps at gasoline stations across the country. A flex fuel pump would offer consumers different blends of biofuel and gasoline – including, perhaps, a 30 percent ethanol blend.
“E-15. We were able to break through that wall with the EPA this year, so we hope E-15 will be available throughout. But some of the mid-level blends like E-30 as an example is something that still gives the power and kind of octane, fuel mileage, etc. that many of our consumers want. And at the same time allows them to save on price at the pump by putting in something that’s cheaper and home grown like ethanol as opposed to foreign oil such as gasoline.”
On its website, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the renewable fuel standard will help to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But according to Kate McMahon of Friends of the Earth, the process of making ethanol can be more environmentally damaging than gasoline.
“If you look at the environmental footprint in the way that we’re producing corn in this country, it’s not so grand. Basically you have a large amount of pesticides, fertilizers being used for corn, for corn ethanol. We have land being used to produce corn for corn ethanol. And that’s causing eco-systems impacts whether it’s the conversion of eco-systems or it’s through the degradation that we’re finding because of agricultural practices we use to produce corn.”
One of the more serious charges against corn ethanol production is that it is responsible for rising food prices, and in some cases, food shortages around the world. But Growth Energy’s Jim Nussle disputes that charge.
“This whole food versus fuel – it’s interesting to me. It’s obviously people who don’t know the ethanol process who make this argument because the process of creating ethanol creates two products. It creates ethanol, but it creates a high-protein animal feed that is basically one-third of the corn kernel that goes back into a high-protein, higher value feed than the corn kernel itself.”
Despite continued debate over its merits as an eco-friendly fuel source, energy industry observers say ethanol will likely continue to be an important part of the world’s energy portfolio. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, worldwide ethanol use increased 350 percent in the past ten years, reaching 74 billion liters in 2010.