In Defense of Ethanol

In the 12 years that I have speaking to him, Robert Zubrin has never disappointed. Whether he was devising a bargain-basement way to mount a manned mission to Mars (rather than taking along the fuel you need for the return trip, produce it from compounds in the Martian atmosphere once you get there, founding Pioneer Astronautics or serving as president of the Mars Society, Zubrin has never let conventional wisdom get in his way.

Amid the avalanche of new books on energy, Zubrin’s—Energy Victor: Winning the War on Terror by Breaking Free of Oil—also goes its own way. Rather than focusing on energy sources that will reduce the world’s emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases, he has one goal, and one goal only: breaking the stranglehold that despots from the Middle East to South America to Africa have on the world’s oil supply.

Zubrin was understandably not happy, therefore, when I disparaged the use of corn ethanol for fuel, pointing out that its greenhouse benefit is somewhere between small and nonexistent. Zubrin is an ethanol booster for one basic reason: it has the potential to wean the U.S. off imported oil. And he doesn’t buy the claim that diverting a large fraction of the corn harvest to ethanol plants is causing world grain prices—and U.S. food prices—to skyrocket. His arguments:

*Diverting corn for ethanol is not cutting in to food production, he says. “Here are the facts,” he told me in an email. “In 2002, the United States grew 9.0 billion bushels of corn, and turned 1.1 billion bushels into . . . 3 billion gallons of ethanol. In 2007, US farmers grew 13.1 billion bushels of corn, turned 3 billion bushels of it . . . into 8 billion gallons of ethanol,” leaving 10.1 billion bushels for food, more than the 7.9 billion bushels in 2002. Do the math: “despite the nearly three-fold growth of the corn ethanol industry,” Zubrin writes, “the net corn food and feed product of the USA increased 34% since 2002. Furthermore, contrary to claims in many articles, this has not been done at the expense of soy or wheat production. In fact, U.S. soy plantings this year are expected to be up 18% to a near record of 75 million acres, wheat plantings are up 6%, and overall, U.S. farm exports are up 23%.”

*The ethanol program pushed the price of a bushel of corn from $2.50 to about $4.50 or $5 in the last five years, or 9 cents per pound at the $5 price. This has induced farmers to plant more corn, from 78.9 million acres in 2002 to 93.6 million acres in 2007, putting “more corn on the market, helping to feed the world.”

*Those price increases? Blame OPEC, for causing fuel prices to rise 60% this year, plus increased demand from China and India. At $5 per bushel, the corn in a $3 box of cornflakes “cost 8 cents when bought from the farmer. So farm commodity prices have almost no effect on the retail consumers. But the effect of oil price hikes can be huge.”

*With oil above $120 per barrel, the U.S. will pay nearly $1 trillion for its oil supply, and the world as a whole will pay almost $4 trillion. “These petroleum costs are both up a factor of ten from what they were in 1999, and represent a huge highly-regressive tax on the world economy,” argues Zubrin, an astronautical engineer by training. “[The dollars going to OPEC are] “equivalent to a 45% increase in income taxes across the board, with 60% of the sum being paid over in tribute to foreign governments. Indeed, it is this massive tax increase – by far the largest in American history – that is now driving the United States into a recession.”

His conclusion: “rather than shut down the biofuel programs, we need to radically augment them, to the point where we can take down the oil cartel." He wants Congress to require that all new cars "be flex-fuel vehicles that can run on any combination of gasoline, ethanol or methanol. The technology is readily available and it only costs about $100 per vehicle. By making America a flex-fuel vehicle market, we will effectively make flex-fuel the international standard, as all significant foreign car makers would be impelled to convert their lines over as well.”

Zubrin doesn't pretend that corn ethanol will do much to avert the greenhouse crisis, but his focus on oil independence and energy prices is likely to resonate with more Americans (and politicians) than climate change does anyway. (As an aside, I have to mention a letter I got today from an angry reader, letting me know that "nobody [in his small town] even knows what a carbon footprint is. . . . Global warming and saving the planet is a bunch of crap. Everyone is concerned [instead] about maing enough money to pay for gasoline to drive to work.") And that will be the challenge for the next Administration, and the next Congress.