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Opening Arguments

Corn and coal

I hate to say I told you so, but, well, you know:

Ethanol doesn't burn cleaner than gasoline, nor is it cheaper. Our current ethanol production represents only 3.5 percent of our gasoline consumption -- yet it consumes twenty percent of the entire U.S. corn crop, causing the price of corn to double in the last two years and raising the threat of hunger in the Third World. And the increasing acreage devoted to corn for ethanol means less land for other staple crops, giving farmers in South America an incentive to carve fields out of tropical forests that help to cool the planet and stave off global warming.

So why bother? Because the whole point of corn ethanol is not to solve America's energy crisis, but to generate one of the great political boondoggles of our time. Corn is already the most subsidized crop in America, raking in a total of $51 billion in federal handouts between 1995 and 2005 -- twice as much as wheat subsidies and four times as much as soybeans. Ethanol itself is propped up by hefty subsidies, including a fifty-one-cent-per-gallon tax allowance for refiners. And a study by the International Institute for Sustainable Development found that ethanol subsidies amount to as much as $1.38 per gallon -- about half of ethanol's wholesale market price.

Yeah, Indiana has a lot of corn, but so do a lot of other states. And we're one of the few states that has decades and decades worth of coal reserves. We could be the Saudia Arabia of coal, if we pushed that for our energy needs:

Last year, America consumed more than 1 billion tons of the mineral. At the present rate, using existing extraction technology, the reserves will last 243 years. Coal is dramatically cheap to mine, too: In 2005 it cost $8.66 to produce a million BTU of oil; the equivalent energy from coal cost $1.19. About two-thirds of America's favorite fossil fuel comes from surface mines (about 778 million tons); the rest is produced in underground mines, mainly in Appalachia.


A J Bogle
Tue, 07/31/2007 - 8:08am

The point of ethanol is not so much to reduce emissions as it is one piece of the equation to minimise our dependence on foreign oil and the hostile countries oil finances. On top of other alternative energies like solar, wind, hydroelectric and even "nucular". The downsides of coal on the other hand are greater air pollution and other environemental downsides like strip mining and carbon emissions. Ethanol is a stepping stone, not the be all and end all like the ethanol oponenets keep trying to imply.

Bob G.
Tue, 07/31/2007 - 8:39am

Agreed that ethanol is not the alpha/omega of alternative fuels.

But major strides have been made with cleaner burning coal facilities (and they cost money too), and then there's trash to steam plants (never really took off though).

I'm holding out for MR FUSION to power my car (Doc Brown..where are ye?)...lol!

And we'd best not wind up with BOTH FEET on that "stepping stone"...we might wind up falling into the "creek".