In an amazing display of candor Al Gore said Monday in Greece that support for corn-based ethanol was “not a good policy.” He added, “It’s hard once such a program is put in place to deal with the lobbies that keep it going.” “First generation ethanol I think was a mistake. The energy conversion ratios are at best very small.”
Translation: Ethanol is a fuel that would not exist in the United States without billions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies. Simply put, the production of ethanol uses more energy than it produces. Robert Bryce writes in Slate : “David Pimentel, a professor of ecology at Cornell University who has been studying grain alcohol for 20 years, and Tad Patzek, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, co-wrote a recent report that estimates that making ethanol from corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the ethanol fuel itself actually contains.”
Subsidies for ethanol were first passed in 1994 when Gore, then vice-president, cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of them. At that time, did Gore naïvely think he was helping the environment? No, he admitted to his Greek audience, he was thinking of himself: “One of the reasons I made that mistake is that I paid particular attention to the farmers in my home state of Tennessee, and I had a certain fondness for the farmers in the state of Iowa because I was about to run for president.”
In 2009, ethanol subsidies were at least $7.7 billion. This figure doesn’t include the environmental damages (including damage to Midwest aquifers) caused by ethanol plants, the subsidies to corn, higher energy prices to consumers, and the harm done to the world’s hungry who faced skyrocketing food prices.
But has Gore really learned anything? Has he learned it is bad idea for government to pick winners and outguess the thousands of entrepreneurs in the energy field? Or, was it just that corn-based ethanol is a bad idea? Of course, in Gore’s world, it is the latter. No matter that through subsidizing ethanol we have helped to destroy the environment, slowed the development of new energy sources, and cost the taxpayers billions of dollars.
No, Gore has learned nothing; he will do better next time: “I do think second and third generation [biofuels] that don’t compete with food prices will play an increasing role, certainly with aviation fuels.”
Is that true? Pimentel and Patzek, “In addition to their findings on corn, … determined that making ethanol from switch grass requires 50 percent more fossil energy than the ethanol yields, wood biomass 57 percent more, and sunflowers 118 percent more. The best yield comes from soybeans, but they, too, are a net loser, requiring 27 percent more fossil energy than the biodiesel fuel produced. In other words, more ethanol production will increase America’s total energy consumption, not decrease it.”
Second and third generation biofuels are as bad or worse than corn-based ethanol. Did anyone in his audience point out to Gore that he continues to spout nonsense? Probably not. He was speaking to a group of bankers. They, like Gore, depend on subsidies. They, like Gore, depend on the government to redirect wealth from productive sectors of society to themselves.