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Published March 13 2011

Nelson: Ethanol’s promise is empty

You just can’t keep a good boondoggle down. Now that oil prices are spiking again, ethanol is raising its tax-subsidized head just in time to argue for the pork train to continue. Pro-ethanol folks point to the Mideast mess and argue that we need to distance ourselves from oil by making more ethanol.

Alas, their claims are all moonshine and delusion. Ethanol is an energy hog; it takes about as much energy to make as it renders. The energy in/energy out ratio for ethanol is about 1:1.1 according to Mother Earth News. National Geographic says 1:1.27. Even the ethanol industry itself bragged of a 1:1.67 ratio. Put another way, making ethanol as a way of creating energy is like planting 10 grains of wheat to get a harvest of 12 or 13 grains.

Even sugar beet ethanol promises only about twice what corn ethanol delivers – a distinct improvement, but still feeble compared to oil’s positive double-digit energy in/energy out ratio.

Newt Gingrich tells us that cellulosic ethanol promises an eightfold harvest of energy output, someday. Now those are decent numbers that could make ethanol worthwhile, but it’s years off, assuming it’s feasible. There are related problems with switching a technological society from oil to ethanol, such as enormous stress on water, ground, fertilizer, and pesticide resources, but even a partly sustainable fuel could be worth the trouble it causes.

And trouble ethanol can be. Several years back, my old van started having fuel problems. Trips to the repair shop revealed nothing, yet the problem persisted to the point of my considering retiring the truck. By happenstance, I discovered that the gas station I generally fueled up at was dispensing 10 percent ethanol without so labeling the pump. Voila. I removed the van’s tank, had it professionally cleaned, and the problem disappeared along with years of ethanol-loosened crud.

My emergency generator started acting up around the same time – same problem as the van, as the mechanic showed me bits of disintegrating fuel hose in the carburetor bowl. These problems cost money to fix, not to mention causing anxiety. But did any ethanol booster ever look at the annual $5.5 billion the feds slop agriculture’s troughs with and endorse helping those hurt by ethanol’s solvent tendencies? Maybe just a few crumbs spilling over the troughs’ tops? Right.

What some enthusiasts for the federal ethanol welfare program seem unable to figure out is that ethanol does practically nothing for oil imports and dependency. Let me repeat that for the harder-craniumed types: Ethanol improves nothing about our oil consumption. Since it takes about the same energy to make as it gives up (more, some critics say), it cannot possibly save more than a trifling amount of oil or gas consumption.

Money is scarce. The billions we’ve poured down the ethanol rathole should’ve gone to research, not to political pork projects that produce little. Let’s get the science down first and then pursue ethanol if it’s worthwhile.

Nelson is a Fargo postal worker and regular contributor to The Forum’s commentary page.