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Urging Congress to Cancel the Ethanol Tariff 569

reporter writes "The Wall Street Journal is urging Washington to discard the 54-cent-per-gallon tariff on imported ethanol. This tariff is effectively a subsidy for corn-based ethanol produced in the USA. Yet, producing ethanol from corn is highly inefficient and consumes 1 unit of energy for each 1.3 units of energy that burning ethanol provides. By contrast, ethanol derived from sugarcane (which is the sole source of ethanol in Brazil) yields 8.3 units of energy. Sugercane is about 7 times more efficient than corn. Some studies even show that corn yields only 0.8 unit of energy, resulting in a net loss of energy."
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Urging Congress to Cancel the Ethanol Tariff

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  • Re:Lower MPG? (Score:3, Informative)

    by value_added ( 719364 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @06:46AM (#15291809)
    Reading in the TDI Club I was surprised to read that Ethanol provides worst MPG than pure gasoline.

    Does anyone have information on this topic?


    worst: (adjective) most bad, severe, or serious.

    worse: (adjective) less good, satisfactory, or pleasing. 2 more serious or severe. 3 more ill or unhappy.

    wurst: (noun) German or Austrian sausage.

  • by /ASCII ( 86998 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @07:03AM (#15291855) Homepage
    No GM needed, hemp plants without THC have always existed. It's illegal to grow hemp because it is hard to tell 'stoner hemp' and 'non-stoner hemp' apart. And by hard, I mean it's not enough to glance at the shape of the leaves from a distance.
  • by hankwang ( 413283 ) * on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @07:53AM (#15292026) Homepage
    it is hard to tell 'stoner hemp' and 'non-stoner hemp' apart.

    Fiber hemp is cultivated to make long unbranched stems (like 3 meters high). THC Hemp is cultivated to be strongly branched, and lower, since it is the ends of the stems where the THC-rich flowers are.

    Moreover, the THC comes from unpollinated female flowers. Putting the hemp in the middle of a field containing pollen-rich male plants is a surefire way to destroy the 'stoner hemp' harvest, as well as any illegal cannabis farm in a radius of several kilometers. :-)

  • by mangu ( 126918 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @08:15AM (#15292118)
    where do you think the Brazilians get the land to produce that sugarcane? The same place they get the land to produce the beef that goes into McDonalds hamburgers.

    Not really. The Amazon forest is being destroyed for growing cattle, that's true, but land in the Amazon region is not suitable for growing sugarcane. Slash and burn agriculture is very unproductive and not profitable enough to justify the rather complex production of sugar and ethanol.

    Cattle eats a large variety of grasses and blades, in a tropical climate whatever grows in the land after the forest is cut will do for low-productivity cattle growing. Beef has a high enough price per kilogram to be profitable under such circumstances.

    Sugar and ethanol are a different matter. Their price is not high enough to justify transporting the sugarcane long distances. Therefore, it's usually grown in a far more intensive way than cattle is in tropical regions. Check your local supermarket and gas station if you have any doubt, the price per weight of fuel is much lower than the cheapest beef you can buy.

  • by tinkerghost ( 944862 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @09:19AM (#15292424) Homepage
    Would research on that be banned?
    It might as well be. When I was in school (87-91), my horticulture prof had a grant from some asian country (S. Korea or Tiawan[sp?]) to do research into getting longer fibers in the hemp plant. In order to grow the hemp, she had 4 bankers boxes of paperwork sitting in her office, and an armed guard at the greenhouse 24/7.
    Know what you needed to do to get radioactive material out of the physics storage lab? Say Prof. X needs the canister of ....
    By the way, one of the major reasons hemp is illegal in the US is William Randolf Hurst - the newpaper guy. Hemp makes higher quality paper and has 10-20 times the per acre yeald of trees (2 harvests a year vs 1 every 5-10). Mr. Hurst owned vast tracts of forrest in the Pacific NW & felt threatened by that. So money and legality are not new aquaintences.
  • by spectrokid ( 660550 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @09:37AM (#15292563) Homepage
    Corn-fuel is what we call a first-genearation technology. Biotech companies like Novozymes are working on enzymes which can break down corn-waste (leaves etc.) until the starch is short-chained enough to be fermented in the classical way. None of the first generation plants comes anywhere near making a profit, but once they can start fermenting the leftover crap, this picture could change. Raising fuel prices are obviously helping.
  • by pfdietz ( 33112 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @09:51AM (#15292671)
    I understand sugar cane actually enriches the soil on which it is grown; there are places near the coast of Brazil where cane has been grown for hundreds of years, with increasing yields.

    One theory about this is the charcoal produced when burning back the stubble is causing progressive enrichment of the soil. Charcoal, it has recently been discovered, is a wonderful soil amendment for tropical soils, preventing the loss of many important nutrients that would otherwise wash right out. Pre-columbian inhabitants of the Amazon basin terraformed huge areas by adding charcoal, creating 'indian dark earths' that are highly fertile even today. 'Slash and char' agriculture could be a huge advance over 'slash and burn'; it also sequesters carbon in the soil.

    If cellulosic (or lignocellulosic) ethanol processes become dominant, we may see the rain forests being cut down to produce the fuel, and perhaps converted to tropical tree farms (perhaps with charcoal soil improvement). Water and sunlight are available and usable year round in the tropics, so the yields per acre per year would be much higher than in temperate zones.
  • by damian cosmas ( 853143 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @11:02AM (#15293225)
    Wether it comes from corn or sugar cane, sugar is sugar (AFAIK its the same fructose either way).

    Refined sugar is sucrose, which consists of a molecule of glucose covalently bonded to a molecule of fructose. Corn syrup is simply a mixture of glucose and fructose. "High-fructose" simply means that there's more less glucose than fructose. Now at the most basic metabolic level, that makes very little difference, since the one of the first steps in digestion of glucose is conversion into fructose. The difference is in what happens to sugars that aren't converted to energy, which is why:

    Is there some reason to think that sugar from cane is associated with fewer health risks that sugar from corn?

    Possibly. In rats and monkeys and such, increased fructose consumption has been shown to lead to blood chemistry associated with increased risks of heart disease and diabetes.
  • Re:Energy efficiency (Score:4, Informative)

    by Once&FutureRocketman ( 148585 ) <> on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @11:54AM (#15293651) Homepage
    Pimental may be overly pessimistic, but it really doesn't matter in the final analysis. Whether the EROEI is 0.8:1 or 1.3:1, neither one is a winner relative to our current consumption of energy. The EROEI of oil production ranged from 5:1 to 25:1, so corn-based ethanol falls short by an order of magnitude.

    To put it another way, even if the return on corn ethanol was a very optimistic 1.5:1, we would have to increase the total system energy throughput by ~10x our present consumption to effectively displace petroleum as a liquid fuel source. And we simply don't have the means to do that, especially not if we're going to try to avoid a global climate disaster while we're at it.
  • Re:Energy efficiency (Score:5, Informative)

    by Total_Wimp ( 564548 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @12:00PM (#15293697) 6-Patzek-Web.pdf

    It's nice to have some numbers, but this doesn't appear to be very scientific. This is from the abstract:
    Finally, I estimate that (per year and unit area) the inefficient solar cells produce ~100 times more electricity than corn ethanol. We need to rely more on sunlight, the only source of renewable energy on the Earth.
    Scientists gather data. This guy appears to be pushing an agenda. It's kind of like Intelligent Design. Just because you say it's science doesn't make it so.

  • by itof500 ( 239202 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @12:01PM (#15293710)
    Actually this is not the case. Fructose is absorbed from the gut and enters the cells of the muscle and liver where it is trapped by phosphorylation by fructose kinase. One of the fundamental controls of intermediary metabolism is control of the initial phosphorylation of glucose by insulin mediated gluco (liver cells) or hexo (others) kinase. In other words the fructose is absorbed into the cell and there trapped regardless of the hormonal state of the animal. In fact, one animal model of adult onset diabete melitus is to feed a rat large quantities of fructose, wherein they develop the classic insulin tolerance.

    Bottom line - sucrose is not especially good for us, and high fructose corn syrup is worse.

    duke (M.D., Ph.D.) out

    (ref Biochemistry, editor Devlin, 2006, p597)
  • Re:Energy efficiency (Score:3, Informative)

    by barawn ( 25691 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @12:22PM (#15293964) Homepage
    Govn't raises MPG standards for all vehicles produced moving forward. Closing the SUV hole is a good start.

    They did, [] several months ago. Look under 'Future'.

    Why didn't this get more press?

    It doesn't set in until 2010, but that's basically needed due to the delay between design and implementation in the auto industry.
  • Re:I disagree. (Score:3, Informative)

    by Bob Uhl ( 30977 ) <> on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @12:42PM (#15294178) Homepage
    One of the few well-proven things in economics is Ricardo's law of comparative advantage. If the Brazilians can produce ethanol more cheaply than we can, then it is better for us to concentrate on what we do best and for them to concentrate on what they do best--in that way we all end up with more ethanol, more gasoline, more energy, more food, more computers and so forth. If an American invests in an inefficient ethanol operation, that's capital which could be put to better use elsewhere. Tariffs simply add inefficiency--which means that they decrease the amount of goods to go around, thus making the poor poorer (and the rich poorer as well).
  • by HighOrbit ( 631451 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @01:11PM (#15294452)
    So you're saying it would be bad for them to have the extra opportunity of work? You make it sound like if it weren't for the Evil Theoretical Sugar Beet Barons then life would be just fine.

    No, I am saying its just like buying from a sweat-shop. You would be supporting an exploitive system. And its not the Theoretical Sugar Beet Barons, but the Real Life Sugar Cane Plantation Barons in Latin America who exploit peasant labor for pennies a day. By using sugar beets instead of cane, we would have relatively well paid farmers in regulated economies in Canada, US, and Europe instead of exploited peasants in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. I would much rather support a group of yeoman family farmers in Manatoba, Rhineland, or Idaho than an exploitive sugar cane system of peasantry in Brazil and Honduras, in the same way that I would rather pay a few dollars more to buy a shirt made in a union textile factory in Missouri than a seat-shop in China or Vietnam.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @01:39PM (#15294699)
    Ah, you kids today...

    Moreover, the THC comes from unpollinated female flowers. Putting the hemp in the middle of a field containing pollen-rich male plants is a surefire way to destroy the 'stoner hemp' harvest, as well as any illegal cannabis farm in a radius of several kilometers. :-)

    Back before Reagan tried to get us all to switch from pot to cocaine, almost all pot was seedy. Much of today's pot is seedy, as well.

    We would separate the "shake" from the buds, saving th ebuds for when you really wanted to get totally wasted rather than mildly high.

    The seeds are only waste weight. A seedy ounce may actually only weigh a quarter after removing the seeds (which taste BAD when smoked). This is one way they can say with a straight face that today's pot is stronger than yesterday's (although killer is far more easily obtainable nowadays).

    Your plant's genetics and the amount and intensity of the sunlight it recieves determines its THC content. It doesn't matter if it's polinated or not, nor what polinates it. If it's polinated from non-THC hemp, it will still get you as high, but if you grow those seeds, they'll not produce pot anywhere near as good.

    That doesn't matter anyway, because hemp is trivially easy to clone.
  • Re:Energy efficiency (Score:4, Informative)

    by Best ID Ever! ( 712255 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @01:42PM (#15294734)
    Here's a comparison [] of the USDA study and Pimental study. It outlines the different assumptions and compares the numbers.
  • Re:Energy efficiency (Score:4, Informative)

    by budgenator ( 254554 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @01:46PM (#15294768) Journal
    For the most part we are big beef eaters, and the farmers already grow a lot of corn for cattle feed, switching the already purchased agricultural infrastructure from corn for cattle feed to corn for ethanol production cost is effective for the farmer; additionaly the ethanol has as a waste product a high protein waste called distiller's dried grain which is a good cattle feed, so the corn that was going to be grown anyways makes ethanol too.
    There are basicaly two catagories of corn grown, field corn is a tough starchy veriety which farmers like for cattle field because the lower sugar content makes it less likely to spoil in storage, and the toughness gives the cattle the roughage they need to stay healthy, it tastes like "old" corn and is a bit chewier.
    Sweet corn is grown for human consumption, and is sweeter, and doesn't store as well; sweet corn turns starchy if it gets old. I'm not a farmer but grew up a round them, so yes I've really eaten field corn.
    When ethanol becomes main-stream you'll see some changes like the big-boys developing verieties specialy adapted for ethanol yield, and remember both corn and sugar cane are grasses so gentic manipulation is highly possible to boast sugar yields.
    My area is a big sugar-beet producer I'm sure there will be ethanol plants made that utilize beets effiently.
    I also think that emzymes to breakdown cellulose into fermentable sugar will be developed to increase ethanol effiencies pretty soon so even wood chips, saw dust and especial tree bark will turn up as ethanol in our tanks.

  • by Bob Uhl ( 30977 ) <> on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @01:53PM (#15294831) Homepage
    You don't get it, do you? Offshoring manufacturing has led to more people being able to afford goods: that is, it has improved the quality of life of the poor. Free markets have done more to alleviate human suffering than any welfare program in existence.
  • by jtcm ( 452335 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @02:00PM (#15294899)
    Has anybody done a study of the engery density of sugar beets?

    From here: []

    Growing, transporting, and distilling corn to make a gallon of ethanol uses almost as much energy as is contained in the ethanol itself. Sugar beets are a better source, producing nearly two units of energy for every unit used in production.
  • by rossifer ( 581396 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @02:09PM (#15295004) Journal
    Don't forget you're dealing with stoners when any talk of hemp for fuel or clothing comes up. Naturally in their state of being continually high they'll believe any bullshit they read.

    I'll bite. Ad hominem (twice).

    Hemp also cures cancer in case you haven't checked lately.

    Strawman. Hemp has almost no THC or other cannabinoids and would do about as much for getting you high as smoking a ball of twine.

    Smoking marijuana, however, can improve the appetite of those on chemotherapy, which does help with recovery times and outcomes. But nobody believes it cures cancer.

    Hemp, on the other hand, makes for a fantastic natural fiber that lasts 2-3x longer than cotton in the same yarn thickness and weave. It also makes stronger ropes than sisal, and the oil is an excellent starting point for biodiesel (with an energy fraction of 3.8).

    Finally, and this ought to be a huge win for people who don't like marijuana, farming a field of hemp destroys any nearby marijuana plants. The pollen from the hemp field will cross-fertilize the marijuana and cut the next generation's plant's THC production in half. Do that a couple of times, and it's all hemp. But then, modern prohibition makes about as much sense as alcohol prohibition did...


    P.S. Pretty good average on the argumentative fallacies per sentence (3:3). A bit wordy if you're looking for a high fallacy per word ratio, however.

    P.P.S. I've smoked pot twice in my life. Both times more than 15 years ago. So, I'm not much of a "stoner". I still think that drug prohibition is idiotic and is simply here to justify the ever-growing police forces around this nation.
  • Private aviation? (Score:3, Informative)

    by mcrbids ( 148650 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @04:01PM (#15296097) Journal
    You need methanol or ethanol to make biodiesel anyway. Also, diesels can be run on E95, a 95% ethanol and 5% gasoline mixture, so you have flexibility there. The only conversion needed to run E95 is to raise base compression and to be able to vary fuel delivery, which is a feature of any TDI diesel anyway. Diesels with mechanical injection might be more difficult, but should still be convertible.

    Biodiesel is a great fuel. It's extremely dense, (high energy content) and can be used interchangably with diesel without requiring any engine modifications whatsoever.

    However, it won't work for Aviation. Biodiesel has a tendency to get very thick when cold, and it often gets below freezing at altitude on an otherwise sunny, beautiful day, simply from the altitude.

    Ethanol is the only biofuel I can think of that could be practically used to replace the high-octane gasoline used in a private plane. (I don't know about jet fuel)

    I didn't know that tidbit about E95 in diesels, I'll look it up. What most people don't realize is that the diesel engine can run on just about *anything*! The hard part is getting the fuel injection and compression ratios right for whatever the fuel source is.

    The original diesel engine was designed to run on coal dust...
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @04:36PM (#15296461)
    No, you don't seem to know the facts. Those Evil Cane Barons have robbed the lands from the local farmers (yes, literally), and farmers have become Poor Slaves with bad health (harvesting by hand is a very dirty job, since the crops are flamed first). Not to mention the harm they've done to the rainforests.

    You don't have to be Lenin to see why situation B is better.. Poor Slaves would become Slightly Less Poor Farmers.
  • by bobdickgus ( 938017 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @05:31PM (#15296862)
    Butanol is a far superior biofuel, it has a higher octane rating. Higher energy density than gasoline and requires no modification of car engines to run(you could increase the compression to get higher power though). It can be made at about the same weight per weight of input sugar/starch as ethanol. Oh and it does not absorb water like ethanol does.
  • Re:Private aviation? (Score:2, Informative)

    by inode_buddha ( 576844 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @11:34PM (#15298615) Journal
    For that matter, many people fail to take into account the fact that ethanol has a nearly infinite octane rating. In order to produce comparable power to gasoline, one must increase the compression ratio (racers do this), or increase the size of the engine.

    I suspect that increasing the compression for a pure-ethanol engine would make the energy spent vs. energy received ratios (1:1.3) much more favorable for the corn-based ethanols, making it feasible for North America. Perhaps extreme turbocharging could do the trick relatively cheaply, making for a smooth conversion of the national fleet.

1 1 was a race-horse, 2 2 was 1 2. When 1 1 1 1 race, 2 2 1 1 2.