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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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  • Energy efficiency (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Aglassis ( 10161 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @06:14AM (#15291710)
    I'm not too impressed by arguments that say that energy efficiency is the only reason that ethanol or biodiesel can't work. Even if they consume more energy to produce than they make, they are still very useful for one major reason: they are easily transportable. If I can make electricity at $0.07 per KWh at a coal or nuclear plant and make it into a much more valuable transportable energy source via the ethanol or biodiesel route, then I may come out ahead even after the energy losses. Coal and nuclear power are cheap. Gasoline isn't.

    Of course, I should mention, you probably shouldn't be running your tractors and other equipment that you use to harvest the corn or other agricultural product with oil or ethanol. That doesn't work. It only works if you have a mostly electrical system. I wonder if there are any major piece of agricultural equipment that can be set up to "run from the grid" in a sense. Like big batteries on tractors that recharge every day?
  • Who cares? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by mwvdlee ( 775178 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @06:29AM (#15291749) Homepage
    Seriously; is anybody thinking that the US will consider any other aspect but "protectionism"?
  • Sugarbeet? (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @06:31AM (#15291762)
    If the sugary sugarcane is more efficient than using corn, why not try to convert sugarbeets into ethanol? Granted I don't know all the complexities of generating ethanol from biomass products, but just following the seeming link between high sugar content of the cane and applying it to our beets.
  • Re:Energy efficiency (Score:3, Interesting)

    by PrinceAshitaka ( 562972 ) * on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @06:38AM (#15291783) Homepage
    I have heard the statistic many times here, that it is not effective to grow bio fuels. Here on Slashdot biofuels = knee-jerk reaction = nice green thought but the math doesn't work. It is often posted that these fuels do not produce more energy than they require to grow. I assume this calculation come from the energy required to produce the fertilizer along with the petrol consumed by the Tractors. Where does this statistic come from? If the farmers didn't fertilize (fertilizers are very energy intensive to produce ) would the energy required still be more than produced? This statistic seems old, as I remember hearing them at least 7 years ago. Perhaps the conditions are no longer valid. SHOW ME THE MATH!!! Or chemistry as it may well be.
  • by node 3 ( 115640 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @06:53AM (#15291828)
    While this is an important issue, I'd like to see corn lose its protection as a sweetener as well. High fructose corn syrup has replaced sugar as the primary sweetener in our (American) diet, and the studies suggest that HFCS is really quite bad for us. Not only is it a sugar (with all the inherent health issues), but your body doesn't seem to count it when it comes to curbing hunger, so HFCS calories don't replace, but add to, the rest of our diet.

    Not to mention cane sugar tastes better. If you'd like to compare, next time you see an old-fashioned bottle of soda, check and see if it's from Mexico. They still use sugar (check the label to be sure), and compare it with the flavor of a domestic bottle of the same brand. You might be surprised at how different sugar and corn syrup taste as a sweetener.

    Just imagine, there's an action our lawmakers could take that would help curb obesity, diabetes, fuel prices, and pollution!
  • Duh. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by hummassa ( 157160 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @06:55AM (#15291838) Homepage Journal
    Except that, with oil at current prices, it's Waay cheaper to fill your tank with ethanol than to fill it with gas.

    But, seriously, though: the same car, on ethanol, makes 10-20% worse mileage than with gas. Down here we have "flex-power" (ethanol/gasoline flexible fuel system) cars, and if a car gets 12km/l(30mpg, 8l/100km) on gas, it usually will get 10+ km/l (25mpg, 10l/100km) on ethanol. Currently, in my town, the pump price for alcohol is about R$ 2,10/l (US$ 3.85/gallon) and the pump price for gas, R$ 2,50/l (US$ 4.59/gallon), which is a 19% difference.

    IOW: renewable and non-renewable fuels break even (with a slight advantage for ethanol) on mileage per dollar.

    On the performance side, on ethanol cars tend to have a higher final speed than on gas, but they have some 5-10% less torque.
  • by shut_up_man ( 450725 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @07:32AM (#15291938) Homepage
    Interesting side note though - an American friend of mine came to Australia and couldn't stand the locally-produced versions of Coke, Pepsi, etc. He would bring back cases of corn syruped soda when he visited the states, because he greatly preferred that flavour to the Australian can sugar version.

    Funny thing is, it seemed to work the exact opposite way for me. In the US, I'd try soda and go "Ewwwww so much sweetness!" and pine for good old cane sugar soda from back home.

    Australia pizza, on the other hand, is complete crap.
  • Re:Lower MPG? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Sique ( 173459 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @08:58AM (#15292306) Homepage
    First: Ethanol is less dense than Gasoline. If you compare volumes instead of weight, Ethanol is at a disadvantage. Second, Ethanol already contains some oxygene in the molecules, thus the energy density is lower anyway. Ethanol produces about 29,7 Megajoule per kg if burned, Gasoline about 47 Megajoule per kg. Pure Hydrogene would produce 143 Megajoule per kg, while pure Carbon (Anthracit) gets about 33 Megajoule per kg.
    In the end it's always a compromise between ease of transportation (pure Carbon wins), energy density (Hydrogene wins), ease of combustion (again Hydrogene), safety of storage and transportation (Carbon), handling of fuel (any liquid fuel like Ethanol or Gasoline) and other aspects of operation.
    Ethanol has the big advantage that it's energy source is free (as in beer) and will be for the next 5 billion years. That might help Ethanol to overcome the other obstacles, as the big area necessary to grow the plants, the complicated processes to refine the plants to Ethanol and the low energy density, which makes the transportation of Ethanol more expensive.
  • by HighOrbit ( 631451 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @09:01AM (#15292324)
    Why does it have to be corn versus cane? Has anybody done a study of the engery density of sugar beets? They grow an a northern clime (like Wisconsin or Idaho or Germany), the tubar yields high surgar content, and the waste (both foilage and mash) can be used for compost or animal fodder. What kind of engery density can you get from that? They would be socially responsible because they are grown in developed countries, produce only reusable waste, and would not be produced by peasants toiling in slave labor. They also would most likely be grown on existing agricultural land instead of slashed-and-burned rain forrest. As part of the US's screwed up agricultural price support system, we pay farmers *not to grow* extra corn and soy. Perhaps we can take all that fallow agricultural land and have them grow sugar beets instead.
  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @09:43AM (#15292612)
    Try 6-7 bucks a gallon, that's what most of Europe is paying.

    How we afford driving? By using cares that don't swallow a gallon per mile. Now, I don't "envy" you for your low gas prices. I don't even have a car. But I'd have to say that I think the low price for gas is one of the reasons for the problems in some towns. Cities are sprawling out, you can't buy anything nearby, if you need to buy groceries, you have to drive to some shopping area. Over here, more often than not there's a supermarket somewhere in the basement of an apartment building. Walk over, buy your stuff and carry it home.

    This won't change over night, and it will cost a fortune to change it.
  • Re:Energy efficiency (Score:5, Interesting)

    by shotfeel ( 235240 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @09:53AM (#15292687)
    Many of these studies also leave off the fact that the "byproduct" of producing ethanol from corn is also valuable. If I can find the link to the study, I'll post it (I think it was done by the US Department of Agriculture).

    In short, ethanol is produced by converting the sugars/starches in corn to ethanol. That leaves behind a protein rich by-product that is then added to corn and other feed used for raising cattle, replacing more expensive (in every sense of the word) protein supplements.

    So based on the merits of EtOH production alone, corn may not be the best source. But you need to consider all the factors involved.

    OTOH, if you live in the midwest, you may be hearing a lot about switch grass. Supposedly yields more protein than soy beans and more EtOH than corn. Look for some farmers to turn to that if EtOH becomes a more viable fuel alternative.
  • by Paradise Pete ( 33184 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @10:32AM (#15292974) Journal
    and would not be produced by peasants toiling in slave labor.

    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.

    People don't take "slave labor" jobs by force. They take them because it's better than anything else they might do. So the problem is not the work, but the situation. And taking away the work certainly does not make things better. You make it sound like *not* using third world products somehow improves the third world condition.

  • by MikeXpop ( 614167 ) <> on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @11:17AM (#15293330) Journal
    Interesting side note to *that*. Last month, Coke put out Kosher Coke for Passover in the US. Since grains are not Kosher during Passover, corn syrup is not either, so Coke ships out some bottles with cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup.

    I picked some up, because I had heard of it before and was curious. I had my first glass and.... WOW. That was amazingly sweet. It was sweeter than the HFCS coke. It really didn't make sense to me, since HFCS is a sweeter syrup than cane-sugar-based sucrose. I assume Coke added more sugar to please the Americans.

    I may still have the bottle at home. I'm curious to see how much sugar was in there compared to the HFCS coke.
  • Re:Lower MPG? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by z-kungfu ( 255628 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @11:25AM (#15293391)
    One of the biggest problems, even with flex fuel vehicles, is that they are still primarily set up for gasoline and only view ethanol as an afterthought. Ethanol requires higher compression than your average pump gasoline to get any sort of performance. E85 is rated at 106 octane. Your average pump gas is 87-91. In order to better take advantage of the energy in ethanol you would need to raise the compression a few points. This will offset the energy difference and put them on a more equal footing. Especially since an alcohol engien runs cooler than a gasoline engine.
  • Re:Lower MPG? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by jafac ( 1449 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @12:32PM (#15294072) Homepage
    There's really two issues here (aside from the spelling/grammar nazism):

    If you include the costs of the energy required to make the equipment that would be used to increase ethanol production to replace gasoline, yes, ethanol takes more energy to produce than gasoline.
    Of course, this calculation does not include the cost of equipment and human lives to secure petroleum resources in the Middle East to produce gasoline.

    In other words, this "Ethanol is a net energy sink" argument is utter bullshit.

    However, the other issue - "miles per gallon" - of course. A 20 gallon tank of ethanol takes you less far than a 20 gallon tank of gasoline. About 15% less far. So what? A 20 gallon tank of diesel (petro or bio) takes you farther than a 20 gallon tank of gasoline, (plus, producing petrodiesel from crude is a more efficient process than producing gasoline from crude), but you don't see everyone flocking to diesel.

    Why? Because diesel (petro) is a horrible polluter. (and doesn't offer the cold-weather flexibility of gasoline).
    But compared to Ethanol, gasoline is a horrible polluter. Gasoline puts carbon into the atmosphere. Ethanol extracts carbon from the atmosphere in it's production phase, and puts it back in the combustion phase.

    So the gp poster has a point, but it wasn't clear which one he was talking about. With regard to the production issue - that argument is bs. With regard to the energy-density issue - that problem is resolved by using flex-fuel vehicles. Burn ethanol for commuting the 20 miles to and from your daily job. Burn gasoline when you're driving cross country to see the folks in Florida, if you absolutely MUST have that 400-mile-between-fill-ups range.
    (or buy a diesel, and get a 600-mile-between-fill-ups range all the time, and run it on biodiesel to eliminate net-carbon dioxide, particulates, and sulfur oxides from the emissions).
  • Re:Energy efficiency (Score:3, Interesting)

    by pizzaman100 ( 588500 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @12:37PM (#15294125) Journal
    I'm wondering why must our farmers grow corn? Why can't they produce sugar ethanol as well? In the warmer climates they can grow cane, in the colder climates they can grow sugar beets.
  • Re:Energy efficiency (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Schraegstrichpunkt ( 931443 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @01:31PM (#15294637) Homepage
    Right. My point was that "zero net carbon emissions" is something of a red herring, because, for example, differences in NOx emissions when burning a particular fuel may (or may not; I don't know) outweigh the benefits of "zero net carbon emissions".

    Basically, I'm just being a nay-sayer. :-P

  • Re:Energy efficiency (Score:3, Interesting)

    by drinkypoo ( 153816 ) <> on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @01:40PM (#15294715) Homepage Journal

    As we have already covered, though, corn ethanol is not efficient anyway. Also, there are other biofuels which can be made from other parts of plants, like biodiesel from oils. I suppose the holy grail would be a plant with lots of sugar AND oil, from which we can easily extract both... 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.

    And before I get the usual fleet of assholes trying to tell me that gasoline should never go into a diesel, it's been done already with great success. Also, Mercedes used to put a recipe for making a diesel fuel out of dirty motor oil and gasoline into their manuals, but eventually took it out because people are stupid and cannot be trusted with that information.

  • Re:Energy efficiency (Score:3, Interesting)

    by pclminion ( 145572 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @02:00PM (#15294907)
    Right. My point was that "zero net carbon emissions" is something of a red herring, because, for example, differences in NOx emissions when burning a particular fuel may (or may not; I don't know) outweigh the benefits of "zero net carbon emissions".

    Personally, I put local pollutants like NOx farther down the list of priorities than global pollutants such as CO2. When it comes down to it, NOx is considered bad simply because humans don't like to breathe it. Whereas CO2 has significant, long term affects across the entire planet. But this is only my opinion.

    Nay-say away. Without the critics we'd just end up in fantasy land.

  • Re:Energy efficiency (Score:2, Interesting)

    by plantman-the-womb-st ( 776722 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @02:17PM (#15295072)
    I once decided to make a statement about the SUV trend. A lot of people at my office building have them, the type of SUVs that cost ridiculous amounts of money and aren't used for what SUVs should be, the BMWs the Range Rovers and such. I showed up to work in a suit with a brand new climbing harness on over the top of it, a carabiner and a figure eight descender clipped to it and a coil of rope over my shoulder. People gave me the strangest looks you could imagine. One guy asked me what I was wearing and said I looked silly. I said just as silly as you look driving around an all terrain off road vehicle in the downtown business district.

    Amazes me how one can be silly while the other is a symbol of high status.
  • by rossifer ( 581396 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @02:46PM (#15295406) Journal
    The politicians kill attempts to introduce it with fearmongering over the possibility of people growing marijuana in the fields alongside the commercial hemp, as the two plants appear identical.

    Except they should be thrilled about that possibility. A hemp field destroys nearby marijuana plants. The hemp and marijuana will cross-pollinate, destroying the marijuana's ability to produce THC. Widespread hemp production will force almost all marijuana production indoors (with good filters on the air supply), which makes it much more expensive than it is now.

    But then, I'm expecting rational thought out of politicians, which really is crazy...

  • Re:Energy efficiency (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Beale ( 676138 ) on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @03:48PM (#15295979)
    On a related note, have you heard of the dual-fuel diesel/sunflower oil engines? []
  • by Reziac ( 43301 ) * on Tuesday May 09, 2006 @09:31PM (#15298081) Homepage Journal
    And according to TFA (or one linked from it, I forget), sugar cane produces 7 units of energy for every unit used in production. That's a helluva lot more efficient even than sugar beets.

    The advantage of sugar beets is that they do well in areas with short growing seasons and long winters -- North Dakota and Minnesota both produce a lot of sugar beets, and are close to markets for the principle waste product (beet pulp, useful as mulch and livestock fodder).

    The only downside I can think of is that you don't want to live downwind of the sugar plant, cuz man, do "used" sugar beets ever stink!

    The U.S. used to grow a lot of sugar cane (mainly along the Mississippi delta) and there's probably no reason we can't return to that, especially since a good deal of what used to be cane fields 200 years ago is now... er, no longer urbanized, thanks to certain hurricanes. Sugar cane used to be very labour-intensive, but I understand there are now harvesting machines for that job.

Can anyone remember when the times were not hard, and money not scarce?