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Hard Talk Forum: Does Ethanol Make Economic and Environmental Sense?

March 31, 2008

YES: Ethanol Will Reduce Our Dependence On Foreign Oil

—By Bruce Dale*

Ethanol offers a huge reduction in petroleum consumption per mile driven and it can significantly decrease greenhouse gas generation compared to gasoline. Ethanol derived from cellulosic materials can also be produced at low enough costs and in large enough volumes to seriously challenge petroleum’s dominance as a source of liquid transportation fuels.

A recent article in the journal Science provides data showing that, since very little petroleum is needed to produce ethanol, using ethanol as a fuel reduces petroleum consumed in proportion to the percentage of ethanol in the fuel mixture. Assuming a fuel efficient car getting about 50 miles per gallon of fuel and driving on E85 (a mixture of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline), the overall petroleum consumed would be equivalent to about 250 miles per gallon. Higher percentage ethanol blends would get even more miles per gallon of petroleum consumed.

It is important to distinguish between...

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*Bruce Dale is a Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University and Editor-in-Chief of Biofuels, Bioproducts & Biorefining.

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NO: Ethanol Wastes More Energy Than It Produces

—By David Pimentel*

Corn ethanol production is energy inefficient and expensive. In 2007 alone the U.S. sank more than $6 billion in subsidies to support the production of corn ethanol. It is also represents an environmental hazard, threatens nutritional balance by raising the cost of key food staples—the price of milk, meat and eggs has increased between 10 percent and 20 percent in 2007—and, finally, poses genuine ethical concerns.

While diminishing oil supplies, along with high prices, have accelerated projects to convert grains and other biomass into ethanol fuel, it is important to take a longer perspective. Ethanol production, whether based on corn or on biomass such as plants and grasses, requires large areas of fertile soil and huge quantities of water— both of which obviously represent a reduction in the amount of those often-scarce resources needed for the world’s growing food supply needs.

Many enthusiasts suggest ethanol produced from corn grain or grasses...

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*David Pimentel, PhD, is a Professor Emeritus of the Department of Entomology at Cornell University.