Blighted harvest: The American corn ethanol disaster

Touted as an environmentally friendly alternative to gasoline, corn ethanol is an economic and environmental disaster. It makes gasoline look green. Photo: snake.eyes (Flickr)

CLEMSON, SC, November 9, 2011—Sold as newer, cleaner, more advanced energy technology, ethanol production has been a blistering disaster in the United States.

In the United States, almost all ethanol is made from corn. This means that the sugars in the corn must be fermented, distilled, and dehydrated in order to produce ethanol fuel (ethyl alcohol).

A major downside of producing corn ethanol is the amount of energy required: Ethanol made from corn returns only 25% more energy than is consumed to make it. This means that each gallon of ethanol fuel is only 25% “renewable” energy (a 4:1 ratio).  In contrast, Brazilian cane ethanol yields 800% more energy than is consumed in its production (a 1:8 ratio), and is a much better alternative as a sustainable fuel.

Basic chemistry dictates that gallon for gallon, burning ethanol produces only 2/3 as much energy as burning gasoline.  

In recent years, Americans have become accustomed to E15 “gasohol” (15% ethanol) at the pumps. Due to government regulations, it’s now extremely rare to find a gas station with ethanol-free gasoline in the US.

This means that the efficiency of E15, measured in miles per gallon, can never exceed 95% of the efficiency of regular gasoline. In actuality, it tends to be far lower. For most cars, ethanol mixes are detrimental to fuel efficiency. For example, the EPA tested 2006 flex-fuel models and determined that with E85 there was an average MPG reduction of 26%. Vehicles advertised as 30 MPG for regular gasoline typically get 22.2 MPG with E85 at the pump.

Ethanol in our fuel supply is not improving our fuel efficiency, but rather decreasing it to depressing levels.

Negative consequences of ethanol abound.  

Ethanol production increases the price of corn used for food. The price of corn is skyrocketing, which raises the price of all corn-based products. 24% of the U.S. corn crop is now mandated to go to ethanol, which is causing shocks to global markets as third-world nations must pay more for this food staple. Ethanol production competes with land space for other food products, using an estimated 11 acres worth of land per vehicle fueled by ethanol per year.

Ethanol appears to be “environmentally friendly,” but it is not.

Ethanol releases 19% more carbon dioxide than gasoline. For those who believe that human-produced carbon dioxide plays a role in global climate change, this is not a good statistic.

Ethanol production requires enormous water resources. According to the Water Education Foundation, a pound of corn requires 118 gallons of water to grow. Given the 21 pounds of corn required to produce one gallon of ethanol, that’s almost 2500 gallons of water used, not including water in the distillation stage. So when filling their gas tanks, most Americans now indirectly consume over 2500 gallons of water.

Given the global water crisis, is this good for the environment? Can we say that ethanol is a clean, renewable fuel that paves the way to the future if its negative environmental effects are even worse than those of regular fossil fuels?

Perhaps the most devastating effect of the ethanol industry is the destruction of the small engine. An in depth analysis shows that when a gasohol mixture contains more than 0.5% water (which can easily accumulate due to humidity on a hot day), the ethanol starts to decompose, forming a single phase separation layer of ethanol and water at the bottom of a fuel tank. Because this small layer of ethanol and water does not support combustion, it gets sucked into the engine, clogging up and permanently destroying the carburetor.

Billions of dollars have been spent in the past few years on countless lawn mowers, weed eaters/trimmers, blowers, lawn equipment, boat, and other small engines that have all failed due to ethanol corruption. While this dynamic has provided a huge boost to the small engine creation and repair industries, it has consistently put consumers at a severe disadvantage.

For example, “water damage” of a carburetor is no longer covered by product warranties or protection (insurance) plans on lawn equipment. This failure is specifically considered the fault of the owner, even when the product recommends using E15. The obvious solution to ethanol-related problems in small engines is only using ethanol-free gas to supply them. However, most consumers have to drive up to 50 miles to a gas station with ethanol-free gas, and in fact, some states don’t even have them at all.

A careful look into the ethanol question in the US leaves one wondering why this trillion dollar industry even exists. Is it attributable to Crony Capitalism?


John Paul Cassil studies Management/Entrepreneurship and Political Science at Clemson University. A former U.S. House of Representatives Page, Cassil has since worked on conservative campaigns and in Congress for Congresswoman Foxx.

Cassil is the Managing Editor of the Tiger Town Observer, Clemson’s Conservative Journal of News and Opinion. He regularly speaks about activism at national conservative conferences.

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John Paul Cassil

John Paul Cassil studied Business Management (Entrepreneurship) and Political Science, recently graduating from Clemson University with the highest GPA of all business majors in his class. Cassil currently performs business analysis for the Secretary's Office of the U.S. Department of State, with an active Top Secret Security Clearance. 

Cassil has extensively traveled throughout Europe, the US, and the Middle East. He's lived across the American South, in Belgium, Kuwait, and Israel. He has interests in politics and foreign policy, having participated in numerous Model United Nations conferences around the world, including Harvard World MUN in Taipei, Taiwan and Princeton's 2008 Youth Initiative for Progress in Iraq Conference, in Amman, Jordan. 

In 2007, Cassil was appointed as a U.S. House of Representatives Republican Cloakroom Page by Speaker of the House John Boehner. Cassil has since worked for Congresswoman Virginia Foxx, as well as South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson's successful campaign. 

In College, Cassil served as the Managing Editor and Media Director of Clemson's Tiger Town Observer, as well as the Founder and Chairman of Clemson's Young Americans for Freedom. He has spoken about his collegiate activism at national conferences of organizations such as the Young America's Foundation and Eagle Forum. He has written articles for both The Washington Times Communities and Roll Call.

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This column does not express the opinions of the U.S. Government or any of its agencies.


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