In the national debate on ethanol, at least three fallacies seem to have become accepted as gospel. What is disturbing is that, at a time when America can't afford to shortchange energy security, untruths about the benefits of biofuels could become an excuse for doing nothing to change government policies that hamper oil production.
I offer the following three myths and the realities.
Myth No. 1: Ethanol is the answer to our nation's energy problems.
Nothing illustrates the limits of ethanol more than the fact that last year 14 percent of the U.S. corn crop was used to make ethanol. It replaced less than 2 percent of gasoline. If all corn production in the United States was converted to ethanol production, it would replace only 12 percent of the gasoline Americans use.
Myth No. 2: Ethanol can save us from global warming.
With today's technology, overall greenhouse-gas emissions for a car driving on E85 (85 percent ethanol blended with 15 percent gasoline) are 20 percent lower than one using gasoline only, according to the Argonne National Laboratory.
But only a tiny fraction of the nation's cars are capable of running on E85. Even with more flexible-fuel vehicles on the road, it will take decades for them to penetrate the market. In the near term, ethanol has no chance of mitigating global warming.
Myth No. 3: There's no limit to how much ethanol can be produced.
Right now ethanol is a fast-growing business, with 117 production plants operating at full capacity, plus 78 more under construction and about 200 in the planning stages, according to the Earth Policy Institute.
The federal government subsidizes ethanol with a tax credit of 51 cents per gallon of ethanol. Those subsidies totaled about $1.4 billion last year.
Ethanol production, however, requires a large amount of energy and water. On average, each gallon of ethanol requires 1,700 gallons of water, mostly to grow the corn.
But a prolonged drought in large parts of the Midwest and Southwest has taken its toll on groundwater. In some parts of the Corn Belt, water tables have dropped almost 15 feet in the past decade. If they drop much more, ethanol producers might have to pipe in water from other regions, cut back or shut down.
Corn ethanol is being over-promoted as the answer to our nation's energy needs, and is spiraling out of control, drawing corn away from the production of beef, poultry, pork, milk and eggs.
If left unchecked, ethanol production has the potential to ravage America's livestock industry and harm the nation's reliability as an exporter of corn and its byproducts.
Certainly there are better ways to ensure our energy security without using food for fuel. It's important that we open up more of the U.S. outer continental shelf to oil and gas production.