Corn ethanol better for politicians than environment

Kai Ryssdal Jun 5, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: If you listen to the politicians, they’ll tell you they have an answer to high gas prices. It’s not more production. Or using less crude oil. It’s corn. Technically, a blend of ethanol produced from corn and regular gas known as E85. Consumers, though, don’t seem to be buying it. A survey out today from the investment bank RBC Capital says one in three Americans believe they’ll see a UFO before their car runs on corn juice. Yes, I said UFOs. Car critic Dan Neil’s not so optimistic about a corn-based fuel cycle either.

DAN NEIL: It seems clear now that E85 does offer some energy return. That is, it produces more energy than it consumes in the manufacture. But it has other issues: Is it good farm policy? Can we put enough corn in the ground to make it worthwhile? Then there’s availability. You know, there are only 710 gas stations out of 60,000 gas stations in this country that sell E85.

RYSSDAL: All good points. But let’s get to the Detroit point here. What do the big carmakers think about all this?

NEIL: Well, they’re delighted to promote E85. And the reason is that it’s a no-cost solution to their environmental image problems. It costs virutally nothing to convert an ordinary car into what’s called a flex-fuel vehicle that can burn E85. And this technology goes back decades. So they can promote themselves — as GM is doing — as a green company, but you have to ask if a flex-fuel E85 SUV that gets 12 miles to the gallon isn’t a contradiction in intentions.

RYSSDAL: Congress, obviously, gets involved in this whole ethanol thing. And it does so really with the pocketbook. I mean, it gives subsidies and tax credits to ethanol producers. I mean, seems to me that Washington is investing in a big way.

NEIL: Yeah, well, Archer Daniels Midland, the major corn producer in this country, is well-represented in Washington. And most of the agitation for ethanol early on was from the Midwest states who will most benefit in terms of their state economies. Which isn’t to disparage ethanol generally. The thing is, it’s not a good fuel if you make it from corn, which is grown in the Midwest. It’s a much better deal if you make cellulosic ethanol, which is a chemical or enzymatic breakdown of cellulose to produce the fuel.

RYSSDAL: Am I hearing sugar in there somewhere?

NEIL: Sugar is a good example of another carbohydrate source that can be used to make ethanol. Brazil uses sugar cane. You can also use sugar beets, which, I love beets, so . . .

RYSSDAL: It’s funny . . . for a car guy, you know a lot of chemistry.

NEIL: Well, I’m a dilettante.

RYSSDAL: Can we put enough corn in the ground to make this work?

NEIL: Not corn. Corn is a problem. It’s a seasonal crop that requires intense petrochemical cultivation and production.

RYSSDAL: Fertilizers . . .

NEIL: Fertilizers, herbicides . . . It’s not necessarily good farm policy. And, no, we couldn’t put enough corn in the ground. What we could do is make it out of other cellulosic stocks like agricultural waste. You can make it out of grass clippings.

RYSSDAL: So let’s cut to the chase, here, though. Is this just a big canard that we’re sort of pursuing in this vain attempt to become energy independent and it’s really going to pan out to be nothing?

NEIL: No. Here’s what happens. People are looking for a monolithic solution. There is no monolithic solution. What we have to pursue is a variety of smaller-grained solutions that are more targeted. For example, ethanol is very good for reducing liquid petrochemicals. But as an overall part of the strategy it’s not the final solution. There are, for example, electric cars which can be very helpful in pursuing a transportation solution.

RYSSDAL: Dan Neil writes on cars and whatever else catches his fancy for the Los Angeles Times. Dan, thanks a lot.

NEIL: Thanks, Kai.

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