In July of 2021, this writer took a little trip through rural Missouri. Besides visiting kinfolk whom I hadn’t seen for far too long, one purpose of my trip was simply to do something else, something different. You see, I’d become something of a recluse and I really needed to just go outside, blow the stink off, maybe even commune with Nature, whatever that is.
My destination was a spot near the center of the northeast quadrant of the state, about a three-hour trip by car. The most expeditious route from Kansas City would be to take I-70 to Columbia and then motor north on US 63 for about an hour. Not really interested in expedience, I chose the scenic route, “a road less traveled,” US 24 to be exact.
Driving eastward on 24, what impressed me was the modern world’s utter dependence on petroleum. Not only was I leisurely tooling along in my 1990 Taurus, which happens to burn gasoline, but everything I surveyed depended on oil. The lawns and pastures of the rural folk were nicely manicured. All that mowing takes a lot of oil, but that’s nothing when compared to the crops, especially the corn.
The corn crop did not look like any corn that this kid could remember. It was lush and tightly packed, dense even. Every field looked like it had been planted and cultivated by the same farmer, maybe some corporation. I’d bet a buck that this corn I drove past was genetically-modified Frankencorn, and totally dependent on high-powered fertilizers. I’ve probably eaten tons of it in the cheap salty corn chips I’m addicted to.
Corn (a.k.a. maize) is used not just as food for people and cattle, it’s also used to produce ethanol, and not just for boozers, but to mix in with our gasoline.
Since 2005, Congress has required oil refineries to add ethanol, mostly from corn, to their gasoline. It’s called the “Renewable Fuel Standard” (RFS). The EPA runs the program. In January, Reuters reported: “EPA will have to decide on the next phase of the program in coordination with the Department of Energy and the Department of Agriculture. The EPA plans to propose requirements… in May this year.”
Members of Congress should not leave the changing of RFS to some pointy-headed bureaucrat in the administrative state (i.e. the EPA) but should adjust the program themselves. And they should seriously consider ending the program. Or, they might consider an idea floated in “How To Fix The Ethanol Industry” by Robert Rapier at Forbes in 2019.
To understand just how wacky the RFS is, read “Stop the Ethanol Madness” by Mario Loyola, which ran at the Atlantic in November of 2019. Loyola explains how RFS is not only uneconomic but is also destroying the environment. Loyola asserts that “today’s corn-ethanol program is a glaring failure, and it is unconscionable that politicians of both parties are conspiring to keep it alive despite knowing full well what its problems are.”
Ethanol has about one-third less energy than does gasoline. So cars using ethanol get fewer miles per gallon. Flex-fuel vehicles that use E85 get up to 27 percent fewer miles per gallon.
A huge problem with corn ethanol as a fuel for ICE (internal combustion engines) is its EROI, i.e. its energy return on investment. EROI is the amount of energy produced against the amount of energy used to produce it. The formula for EROI is the energy output divided by the energy input. An EROI of 1.0 would mean that you’re expending as much energy to produce energy as the energy being produced, so it’s would be a wash, a draw, and utter folly to produce energy with such a low EROI. Corn ethanol has an EROI of 1.5 as compared to gasoline’s 11. Because of corn ethanol’s low EROI, you’re basically swapping one type of energy for another. How smart is that?
So, the amount of energy that one gets from corn ethanol for mixing into gasoline is just slightly more than the energy it takes to cultivate corn, harvest it, haul it to the distillers, keep the distillers from sampling too much of their product, haul the finished product to refiners, etc.
That gets us to the fraud of renewables -- they depend on fossil fuels. The heavy machinery used to produce corn ethanol, the tractors, corn-pickers, and such, all use fossil fuels; there are no electric versions as yet. (Rapier touches on this in the above link.) So, a farmer must use fossil fuels to produce a non-fossil fuel. Biofuels can’t exist without fossil fuels, at least not yet. (Actually, petroleum is a biofuel; the “bio” is ancient plankton. Geologists don’t think that abiogenic oil can account for what’s in the world’s vast oil fields.)
Although there are questions about how economic corn ethanol is, its lobby keeps it going. But now that the price at the pump is at all-time highs, it’s time to ask how much of that price is due to compliance with the RFS mandate on refiners to mix ethanol into gasoline. If it adds to the price at the pump, then the RFS program should end immediately.
In June of 2021, American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) reported:
The total cost of RFS compliance is surging and could be as high as $30.5 billion for 2021 -- more than twice the record-high annual program costs set in 2016, and 8.5 times higher than in 2019, the year the United States reached record ethanol blending. By comparison, the refining sector spends $16.4 billion on workforce pay and benefits. The situation is so dire that labor groups and Democratic Governors have requested relief from the Environmental Protection Agency.
In August of 2021, The Hill ran “Why the Renewable Fuel Standard is a threat to our nation's supply chain security” by former Secretary of the Navy Sean O’Keefe and General Anthony Zinni:
For America’s independent refiners, the cost to comply with the RFS is on track this year to exceed all other costs of running their refineries […] a well-meaning policy to increase biofuels has become a self-inflicted wound that poses an ever-growing threat to our national security and global standing as more domestic refineries succumb to the unsustainable costs of the RFS.
In November of 2021, Bloomberg ran “Biden Could Revisit Renewable Fuel Mandate to Give Drivers Relief at Pumps”:
A reduction in ethanol use could be more effective now, with gasoline from refineries even cheaper than ethanol prices. Wholesale prices for 87-octane conventional gasoline are about 15 cents a gallon cheaper in New York than a blend of 90% gasoline and 10% ethanol.
Note that these three block quotes are from 2021, before the added price spikes due to war in Ukraine. The historic high prices for fuel are filtering throughout the economy. Congress needs to act, not leave tweaking RFS to the EPA. There may be some movement on that front, as last July a bill was introduced to that end: S.2385 -- Corn Ethanol Mandate Elimination Act of 2021. However, all that’s happened with the bill is its introduction. It needs further action.
The corn ethanol lobby immediately rose up, and six days after the bill’s introduction, FarmProgress ran “Senate bill repeals corn ethanol mandate.” The article is worth reading as it reveals the entrenched interests at play in RFS. But the article is dated, as the world’s food supply has been damaged by the war in Ukraine, which is a breadbasket to much of the world.
This spring, Ukrainian farmers might have a little trouble between missile strikes getting their crops planted. However, if Ukrainian agriculture is taken offline by war, American farmers can make up some of the difference by raising food rather than fuel additives. That is, if Congress lets them.
Jon N. Hall of ULTRACON OPINION is a programmer from Kansas City.