A Case Against Ethanol as Fuel
By: Melanie Sturm
January 29, 2015
As anglers, we all care about having clean water and healthy fisheries. Without them, a day on the water would simply not be possible.
In practical terms; what does that mean? I’m going to focus on the connection between clean water, corn production and increasing the amount of corn ethanol in fuel that we use in our boat engines. That connection is best encompassed in the issues surrounding the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).
The RFS was rolled out in the 2005 Energy Policy Act and expanded in 2007. It outlines the amount of renewable fuels, including corn-based ethanol, which must be introduced into the consumer fuel supply each year through 2020. The recreational fishing and boating communities have lead a valiant fight against these measures, yet ethanol mandates are growing and that should concern all of us.
Without proper warning labels, boat owners may fill up using E10 (gas containing 10 percent corn-based ethanol by volume) or a higher concentration that is proven to cause great harm to motor boat engines. Most engines aren’t designed to tolerate ethanol, especially because it draws moisture into the engine and causes corrosion. By the way, please remember to look before you pump! Choose E10 or less for small engines in power equipment, cars older than 2001 and marine vessels.
For more than a decade, a number of environmental and industry groups have “sold” the perception that ethanol is sustainable. But, at the scale the RFS requires, it’s not. The effects of corn ethanol production are much broader than its impact on angling and boating. Corn fertilizers – as do many fertilizers – cause serious harm to the aquatic environment and our important fisheries resources.
Here are some other impacts to consider:
- From cradle to grave, corn ethanol is more polluting than gasoline by 33 percent, according to recent research by the EPA. The use of equipment to maintain and harvest corn fields, transportation and processing are all accounted for in ethanol’s life cycle, including carbon emissions from land conversion.
- More than five million acres of wildlife habitat and counting have been cleared and planted over to grow corn in 10 years, as reported by the Associated Press.
- Ethanol contains less energy than pure gasoline, so it’s less fuel efficient. Drivers get fewer miles to the gallon with greater concentrations of it.
- A University of Colorado publication states that five gallons of water are needed to refine one gallon of gasoline compared to 170 gallons needed for one gallon of E10.
- Corn is a heavily water-dependent crop. That clean water used for irrigation is taken from drinking supplies and aquatic habitat.
- Compared to other major U.S. crops, corn is the most fertilizer-intensive. The chemical run-off from corn fields in the Midwest eventually makes its way into the Gulf of Mexico. The run-off is so concentrated in nutrients that it causes an explosion of algal growth, which strips the environment of oxygen and leaves very little for fish and other organisms to thrive.
- Using corn for fuel lowers the supply available for food, hiking up the price for many groceries, not just goods containing corn. Since 2007, FarmEcon, LLC says that meat, poultry, fish and egg prices have gone up 78 percent because corn is used for chicken and livestock feed. This is a global issue, as 570 million people in 2011 alone could be fed with the amount of corn that went to fuel, the New England Complex Systems Institute found.
The RFS was intended to steer the U.S. towards a clean energy future, but it instead has yielded questionable results and unintended impacts.
I’m a proponent of alternative sources of energy but when you see this issue for what it’s worth, it’s clear that corn ethanol is not the golden ticket.