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  • The Conservationist's Case for Ending the Reign of Ethanol

    This past year, the USDA produced a couple of lengthy research reports (here and here) concluding what others have also documented: The federal government’s drive to increase ethanol use has created an environmentally hazardous production cycle in the name of renewable energy that is neither affordable nor clean.

    The Renewable Fuel Mandate inflates demand for corn, which also receives a variety of agriculture subsidies. The result is that farmers plant more corn on more acres. So why exactly is this a problem?

    For one thing, rapidly rising commodity prices and crop subsidies encourage farming practices that may stress farm land and undermine the government’s own conservation efforts. For example, based on 2010 crop yield averages, one acre produced 152.8 bushels of corn. At an average $5.18 per bushel for 2010–2011, a farmer could earn around $790 per acre, compared to only $45 per acre for land enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to not farm their land.

    These high commodity prices have encouraged farmers to plant corn on more and more acreage, regardless of whether or not that land is entirely suitable for farming. Darwyn Bach, a farmer in St. Leo, Minnesota, told The New York Times: “I can farm on low-quality land that I know is not going to produce and still turn a profit.”

    Moreover, marginal crop land may require more fertilizer or pesticides. Corn is by far the most nitrogen-intensive crop. According to the USDA reports, from 2006 to 2011, corn accounted for 65 percent of the 8.7 million tons of nitrogen applied to crops. Nitrogen is not an inherently bad thing; it has greatly increased production abilities in nitrogen-poor areas. However, it may create problems if farmers do not apply it appropriately.

    The USDA estimates that 70 percent of corn crops fail to meet “best management policies” for the use of nitrogen in fertilizer. Consequently, USDA has concluded that “growth in corn demand due to the biofuels mandate…could increase reactive nitrogen emissions to the environment.”

    In effect then, the federal government, by mandating ethanol production to solve the supposed problem of global warming and oil “dependence,” has actually increased environmental risk. Crop subsidies increase the financial incentive to farm on marginal lands, but a farmer’s planting decisions should be influenced by consumer demand, not government dictates and handouts.

    Aurelian Braun is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm.

    Posted in Featured [slideshow_deploy]

    19 Responses to The Conservationist's Case for Ending the Reign of Ethanol

    1. Where is our President? He should be rallying the troops to get rid of the subsidies and the ethanol requirement for gas blends. Oh wait – the EPA is pushing for even higher concentrations of ethanol in our gasoline… http://wattsupwiththat.com/2012/04/24/epas-e-15-e

    2. Barbara says:

      I was told by the store where I buy feed, that the amount if ethanol added to gasoline might increase to 15%, so it doesn't sound like we are headed in the right direction at all. I hope if Romney is elected, he will address this complete waste of taxpayer's money. I can barely afford corn to feed my fowl and it's not all because of the drought.

    3. @drfredc says:

      Another big negative eco effect of Cornahol is the Gulf Coast Dead Zone that is in part exacerbated by excessive corn production. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_zone_%28ecology

    4. One2Stupid says:

      If the Government is involved you can bet that it will be screwed up and will exceed its budget!

    5. Gary Brunner says:

      The negatives connected with Ethanol have been known for several years. The article discusses the corn production side. The effect on fuel systems of autos and other gas engine equipment, the decrease in auto MPG increased operating costs, and the fact that it takes a gallon of gas to produce 1.3 gallons of of ethanol are well known as well. The ethanol lobby is strong, recently persuading the government to allow up to 15% ethanol, a mixture that will destroy the fuel system of any vehicle made before 2007. The government needs to stop the ethanol subsidy, and remove the requirement to mix ethanol into gas, let the economy make the decisions.

    6. Lloyd Scallan says:

      Mr. Braun is leaving out one very important point about CRP programs. Those programs were developed in part to provide wildlife habitat for ducks to deer to songbirds. Without paying the farmer to NOT plant certain portions of his lands, many spices of wildlife could disappear. The left will stop billion dollar projects to protect a worm or a minnow fish, but will support using a fuel additives that is not only harmful to some older engines, but is made from food stuffs planted for both humans and animals. Yet these same leftist condemn tapping into our own natural fossil fuels which would end the need for ethanol. Does that make any sense to anyone?

      • Robert E says:

        The other benefit of the CRP program is that it allows native plants and grasses to grow in marginally productive ares which helps prevent erosion. CRP could help prevent a recurrence of the dust bowl. Plowing and planting from fence to fence eliminating the wind and water breaks provided by permanent ground cover increases the risk and as you mentioned leaves no cover for wildlife.

    7. PaulE says:

      From a purely technical perspective, corn based ethanol doesn't even meet the energy saving criteria that was so loudly touted by the environmental groups a few years back. It fails from that perspective. Secondly, ethanol actually reduces the energy efficiency of gasoline powered vehicles, so it costs consumers more by requiring more frequent fill-ups. Thirdly, ethanol is corrosive to internal combustion engines, which leads to higher costs for consumers though increased maintenance costs for their vehicles over time. So lets review the "benefits" of the ethanol mandate:

      1) Higher costs to produce, which result in higher consumer prices at the pump.
      2) Less efficient energy source, so it requires more, at a higher cost, to go the same distance.
      3) Higher vehicle maintenance costs over time due to the corrosive nature of ethanol itself.

      With "benefits" like these, all in the name of addressing the fictional man-made global warming hoax, the American consumer is slowly being bled dry.

    8. shaun evertson says:

      This is a good editorial, but…

      You've presented a fiction as fact, and since this fiction/fact bears mightily on the argument for pulling the plug on ethanol…

      The government does not pay farmer $45/acre not to farm. Actually, the government — via the mechanism of the farm bill — RENTS some land from some farmers (at about $33/acre) with the proviso that the farmer make conservation improvements (which generally cost the farmer about a third of his total 10-year contract). Enrollment in the program is limited to 25 percent of MARGINAL cropland acres and enrollments have never reached that level. This has actually been a pretty good deal for both the farmer and the nation, but your basic point that it can't compete with market forces is correct. The program was never meant to do so. It was meant to help stabilize what were at the time very low crop prices and to conserve land.

      The rest of your argument is well reasoned but the error illustrates a common frustration of ag producers (and what I'd argue is a trend threatening food security) — a widespread fundamental illiteracy regarding agriculture.

      Ethanol is only one of many existential threats to production agriculture. A concerned but illiterate and badly misinformed public urges government "action" to solve "problems" they react emotionally to (AGW, pollution, animal rights, etc.) but don't understand (or even try to understand, in most cases, in my opinion).

      With less than two percent of Americans feeding 100 percent of Americans, well-meaning but badly misguided people have the potential to force themselves into real hunger and starvation — and feel, at least at first, good about it!

      • ChuckL says:

        Shaun, If the government would simply get out of the way and quit trying to fix what is not broken, the market has proven to be a vy good place to let the consumer and producer settle the cost and pricing. The only place that the government should be involved is is preventing monopoly actions. Promotion of exports would help farmers and this country. This can not be done with rebates for taxes on exported goods. That is in violation of fair trade laws, but if the tax does not exist to begin with, it is not re-bated and that would not be a violation of the treaty.

        Proper use of our own natural resources would solve many of our own problems. Trying to rewrite the laws of nature is a guaranteed failure before it even starts.

    9. Gee, this is all bad news today, and I was trying to have a good day. But when I am reminded about the destruction that the federal government (through its policies) is spreading around our world—well, it is going to be a bad day. Why should only conservatives make a case against ethanol—all of us American citizens should see the reasons we should stop the madness of (a) government interfering in the market place, by picking winners and losers and yielding to corporate cronyism, (b) inflating the price of food, (c) inflating the price of automobiles, and lastly (d) inflating the price of energy.
      I know, the corrupt Congress that sells out for lobbyist money, the corrupt President who sells out for lobbyist money—will not stop their corruption voluntarily—it will be up to us, the voters to become informed about the madness of ethanol. But, there are too many forces against us, the average citizens. For one thing, you have crazed environmentalists whose scare tactics are now part of our public education system, that causes little girls to wake up a night from nightmares that our planet will explode tomorrow and we will all die.
      Oh, one more thing. For the last several years, now comes billionaire T. Boone Pickens with his hand out to Congress for the next boondoggle—HIS natural gas scam. I understand that natural gas, by itself, is a great energy source and a good investment—but FOR THE PRIVATE MARKETPLACE—not for Pickens to get richer with our tax dollars.

    10. glenn says:

      I live near the Chesapeake Bay. They keep saying nitrogen is a problem in the Bay. So is nitrogen a problem in the enviroment or not. It seems so.

    11. Ken Marx says:

      For some reason, we allow "environmentalists" to frame the conversation. What we really need is conservation, a land and air protective concept more akin to conservatism. We need to take back control of the conversation and, subsequently, of our beautiful country.

      Beside being a waste of a food product, ethanol actually consumes more fossil fuel energy than the poor quality energy it produces. While some corporate farmers have benefitted along with the railroads who transport the stuff, the rest of us lose by burning the junk in our vehicles and shortening the life of our engines. Plus, it costs us extra dollars at every step of production and consumption.

    12. Jeanne Stotler says:

      I nearly ruined an automobile using ethanol in the early '80's, I can not see where we benefit from using corn, that should be used to feed cattle to produce beef or pork as well as food for the table. We need to bring food prices down, this raises them. We could use remains from the sugar cane BUT we do not produce the sugar like in SO. Amer. Remedy, finish pipe line, open up drilling off shore and anywhere else, the get the natural gas going, Let's depend on USA instead of the countries that hate us.

    13. EnergyFactCheck.org says:

      With biofuels receiving increased attention in the press lately, it's important to gather the facts on biofuel production and efficiency before forming conclusions on ethanol policy. For example:

      The impact of corn on food prices is overblown. According to US Department of Agriculture (USDA), “Historically, if the farm price of corn increases 50 percent, then retail food prices as measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI) increases by 0.5 to 1 percent.” (Source: USDA, http://1.usa.gov/ONCzk5)

      Ethanol lowered gasoline price for drivers by an average of $1.09 in 2011, according to Iowa State University’s Center for Agricultural and Rural Development. (Source: Iowa State University, http://bit.ly/JJyJJl)

      See more here: http://bit.ly/Q6pCpO

      Get all the facts on advanced and military biofuels at http://www.energyfactcheck.org or on Twitter at @EnergyFactChecl

      • Bobbie says:

        gosh EnergyFactCheck.org, how about the principle of the matter. Lowering gas prices while increasing food costs defeats the whole ignorant purpose! The human body can go without fuel or their travels before they can go without food for their survival! it's the mental incompetence! We'll have a food shortage but hey, we'll have ethanol. And having the involvement of government is just corrupting everything they can with it. At a private expense, there'd be only reasons for honesty. Government control is abusive, demanding, GREEDY. Look at how much government wages ARE for doing whatever they want without accountability!! There's no trust with government behind anything.

      • PaulE says:

        Gee, yet another pro-ethanol, pro-corn study that just happens to be done by a big corn state, in this case Iowa. What are the odds of that huh? No big contributions flowing into the university research by way of the corn and ethanol lobbies right? I would be interested in seeing how this research was financially unwritten.

        As for the US Department of Agriculture, do you really believe they are going to provide unbiased facts for the general public? No. They are in the business of justifying the government's agenda to push ethanol. If you think otherwise, you clearly don't understand how most federal government agencies are staffed and run in the modern era. In all too many cases, the politically correct conclusion that a report is supposed to confirm is outlined up front before one word is written or one ounce of research is performed. It is then up the job of the report's writers to create a report that justifies the conclusion outlined to them by their superiors.

      • CforUS says:

        Everything you are saying may be true. The only problem with it is most of the statistics are not supportable when you take away government mandates and subsidies. We can no longer support subsidizing a bogus program that is well supported by lobbiests that are well funded by the very subsidies they lobby for. We have to ask ourselves, are we doing this for the good of the nation or the good of the government. I'll be voting for the good of the nation. ABO2012

    14. O2BMe says:

      I have never understood using food for fuel. There are too many hungry people in the world for us to be doing that. It was also ridiculous to waste tax dollars pushing the electric car and paying for all the public chargers when converting cars to natural gas and installing natural gas pumps in service stations made much more sense for the environment. Chargers need energy and where in the world do politicians think that comes from.

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