Sacrificing Our Children to the 'Corn God'

Ethanol

Gas prices are skyrocketing as the high-demand summer season rolls in, and Bloomberg News predicts that some pumps may soon hit four dollars per gallon.

Along with high gas prices come the calls for Americans to diversify our energy sources and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. But be skeptical of politicians who tout ethanol as the clean-burning solution to our energy crisis.

Are gas prices hitting a "record high"? Don't believe what you hear from the media about that. Reporters often forget to adjust for inflation. Gas prices were higher in the 1920s and the 1980s.

Read more about this in "Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity." Purchase the book here.

The Miracle Solution?

The idea that ethanol is the answer is a myth. Ethanol is one thing that both Republican and Democratic candidates agree on this campaign season. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani voice their support for the corn-based fuel, and Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., Barack Obama, D-Ill., and former Sen. John Edwards want the government to subsidize ethanol production. According to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, "The economics of ethanol make more and more sense."

Ethanol "makes sense" to these politicians because, they say, it's a clean and renewable energy source that will slow global warming, protect the environment and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Plus, it just sounds good: Ethanol's made from corn, and we grow corn, so it just seems natural.

But if ethanol made so much sense, we wouldn't have to subsidize it or mandate its consumption. Jerry Taylor of the Cato Institute said, "If you can make a profit in this economy by putting something on the market, the government doesn't need to put a gun to your head."

But ethanol producers do need the help of government subsidies if anyone is going to buy their product, because without subsidies it would cost much more than gasoline. And critics point out that the idea that ethanol is good for America in terms of energy prices, foreign policy or the environment is a myth.

The Ethanol Process

As Jerry Taylor reminded us in his interview on "20/20," when ethanol is produced "it takes a lot of fossil fuels to make the fertilizer, to run the tractor, to build the silo, to get that corn to a processing plant, to run the processing plant." Then there's the energy it takes to move the ethanol around. Because ethanol degrades, it's not possible to transport it in pipelines like we do oil, so using ethanol means putting many more polluting trucks on the road to deliver it.

Because of that, a number of recent studies show that it takes just about as much energy to produce ethanol as you get when you burn ethanol. "Its net energy balance is zero, more or less," said Taylor.

On top of this, emissions from ethanol-fueled cars are no cleaner for the environment. According to atmospheric scientist Mark Z. Jacobson of Stanford University, a switch to ethanol won't do anything to address climate change and ethanol fumes may actually be worse for public health than the fumes from gas-powered vehicles.

Emissions from ethanol-fueled cars contain more of the carcinogenic chemicals formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, Jacobson said, and the vehicles will also boost atmospheric levels of ozone, a major component of smog, which will weaken people's immune systems and cause lung damage.

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