In 1944, Hitler's Schutzstaffel commandeered the entire European potato crop and turned it into ethanol to fuel V2 rockets. With their foreign oil sources interdicted by Allied advances, the Germans resorted to replacing imported oil supplies by converting civilian food stocks into ethanol.
The Nazi terror weapon turned out to be a military disaster that consumed and diverted huge quantities of resources from the war effort while producing negligible impact on the outcome of WWII. Beyond the 7,500 civilian and military personnel who were killed outright by the weapon, however, untold thousands more civilians died of starvation and malnutrition in order to feed the vengeance weapon.
To an extent, we are driving down much the same road with our current ethanol program in America but, at least for now, our potatoes are safe. Under the twin banners of reducing dependence on foreign oil and lowering the environmental impact of gasoline, our government chose to divert much of our corn supply into ethanol production. This in turn has driven up the cost of corn-based human and animal food products and, as the realities of supply and demand take hold, producing even more corn for ethanol is crowding out other food crops.
Refined to only 95% purity and blended 10% up to 85% with gasoline, ethanol introduces water and other substances into the fuel supply and contains about a third less energy than the same amount of gasoline. For example, a Chevrolet Impala rated at 19 MPG city and 29 MPG highway using gasoline, is reduced to 14 MPG city and 22 highway using E85. Even worse, ethanol does little, if anything, to extend our fuel supplies. The total energy we derive from corn ethanol is approximately equal to the amount of energy required to produce it. In the parlance of bookies, that's a push.
Ethanol/gasoline blends have also proven unfriendly to many of the components in fuel systems, including those of older cars and motorcycles. From half-million dollar Packards to GTOs and E-type Jaguars, carefully preserved and restored classic vehicles nurtured by millions of hobbyists and enthusiast are particularly susceptible to the ravages of alcohol-laced gasoline and there are virtually no alternatives available at the neighborhood gas station. The effect is so severe that aircraft engines certified to operate on automotive gasoline continue to use more expensive, ethanol-free avgas to avoid disastrous fuel system degradation.
Ethanol from corn is so uneconomical that Congress has to support it in a least three different ways - with a mandate for its use, a tax credit to subsidize it, and a tariff to keep out competitors. On top of that, oil companies get another $.45 per gallon for blending it into the gasoline supplies. Rarely do so many mechanisms of government collude to prop up and force-feed us such a woeful product, and all at taxpayer expense.
Even former ethanol champion, Al Gore, has changed his mind from insisting, "the more we can make this home-grown fuel a successful, widely used product, the better off our farmers and our environment will be."
The former VP and Nobel laureate now says, referring to ethanol, "It is not good policy to have these massive subsidies for first-generation ethanol," referring to corn-based ethanol. He called the fuel "a mistake," and confessed one reason he fell so hard for it is that he "had a certain fondness for the farmers in the state of Iowa."
The ethanol industry now forms a massive federal program that may be good for farm states, but is terrible for taxpayers. More than a third of our record corn harvest of 335 million metric tons is diverted away from food and used to produce ethanol. In five years fully 50 percent of the U.S. corn crop is expected to wind up in our gas tanks.
Despite record deficits, Congress and the Administration have wholeheartedly embraced corn ethanol and the tangle of subsidies, price supports, and tariffs that underpin the entire dubious enterprise of using corn to power our cars. New and existing initiatives are targeted toward tripling production to 36 billion gallons by 2022 while paying out billions more to subsidize producers into the 2030s.
Meanwhile, with proven domestic reserves sufficient to carry us well into the 23rd century, the coal and oil industries continue to be vilified at every level while they produce most of the fuel and electricity in the country. Bypassing Congress, our government is using the Environmental Protection Agency to relentlessly savage them with insidious and extra-statutory regulations.
It's clear that the EPA is less a watchdog for the environment and more an instrument of the "social justice" our current government has built itself upon. If the EPA were solely acting to protect the environment and the nation, corn ethanol would be treated as the scourge it is and not as an alternative to oil and coal.
The ethanol bandwagon is anything but green. Congress and the administration need to reconsider whether they are throwing good money after bad. If the ethanol boondoggle illustrates anything, it is that thinking ecologically will require thinking much more logically, as well.
If we are going to jump on any bandwagons, they need to be red, white and blue.
Editor's note: Dr. Terry Wallace is a Senior Fellow at the Public Policy Foundation of West Virginia and a Senior Fellow at the Government Policy Research Center at West Liberty University.