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Published November 26 2011

Nelson: Ethanol? I’ll supply the shovels

It’s hard to say if ethanol’s backers deliberately or just incidentally misunderstand arguments about their fuel. North Dakota Corn Council Chairman Kevin Skunes, who clearly has a dog in this fight, exhorts us to “write about solutions” to our energy problems. This is what I did, by pointing out that ethanol takes almost as much energy as it gives. Thus, it’s not yet a solution worth pursuing.

Inexplicably, Skunes echoes exactly what I said in my column on ethanol: that fuel injection solved ethanol’s volatility problem, which cripples carbureted machines. (Which is one reason why Henry Ford didn’t pursue alcohol as a fuel.) The objection was that with one wave of the E15 wand, extant carbureted engines of all sizes, old to new, may be subject to damage and cold-weather running problems. There are still millions of cars and trucks with carburetors.

Now, if the ethanol people want to buy me and millions of other Americans fuel-injected vehicles to replace our older cars or pay to retrofit fuel injection on our machines, why, let’s talk. If they want to help me shovel my long rural driveway after a snowfall because my snowblower won’t run right on mandated E15, come on down. I’ll supply the snow shovels.

I remarked in that column that except for flex-fuel cars (a small minority of the whole), even new cars could be damaged by E15. The list of concerned carmakers includes Honda, Chrysler, Ford, Nissan, Mazda, Toyota. Volkswagen, and Mercedes Benz. Even fuel injection isn’t enough to allow safe use of E15 in just any auto.

Skunes claims that ethanol displaces “the equivalent of 500,000 barrels per day of gasoline.” I thought this point was settled by noting ethanol’s nearly 1:1 ratio of energy in/energy out, but let me try again.

If ethanol only gives up slightly more energy than it takes in, then that means it takes nearly a half-million barrels of gasoline to make enough ethanol to displace a half-million barrels of gasoline. The net energy surplus therefore is small, and it’s fallacious to think that the ethanol used to displace gasoline comes into existence with no energy input.

E85 or E30 fuels contain less energy than pure gasoline and therefore suffer from lower mileage per gallon, thus offsetting the price decrease at the pump.

Skunes talks of giving consumers the choice of fuels, while the ethanol industry wants to see all gasolines mixed with ethanol, by law if necessary. Where’s the freedom of choice here?

He tries to scare us into supporting ethanol by pointing to the Mideast’s toils. But we get only 16 percent of our imported oil from there, less than from Canada alone, and the Mideast would be far more settled if we’d stop our warmongering and meddling there.


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