NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


October 24, 2006

In the rush to promote ethanol as environmentally friendly, proponents are ignoring the fact that ethanol consumes more resources than it saves, says John A. Baden, chairman of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE).

In the cover story of the October "Consumer Reports (CU)," ethanol was compared with gasoline and diesel to see how well the alternative fuel actually conserved resources:

  • While diesel contains around 140,000 British thermal units (Btu) per gallon, and gasoline 115,000 Btu, denatured ethanol contains only 78,000 Btu per gallon; these numbers translate into low fuel mileage.
  • For example, CU tested a new Chevy Tahoe and found that in highway driving (on 85 percent ethanol), gas mileage decreased from 21 to 15 mpg; in city driving, it dropped from 9 to 7.
  • In marked contrast, says Baden, two old diesel ranch trucks that weigh a ton more than the new Tahoe each gets 20+ mpg on the highway at 65 mph.

Government subsides contribute to wasting resources, says Baden:

  • Flex fuel vehicles (FFVs) are designed to run on either gasoline or a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gas, E85; automotive manufacturers receive generous fuel-economy credits for each FFV built -- even if it never runs on E85.
  • This credit enables them to build more large SUVs that burn more gas than ethanol replaces; this is a perverse but predictable outcome of political forces.

But given all of this, the resources consumed by ethanol production may still be worse for Third World ecosystems, says Baden.  According to Peter Huber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, if the process for producing ethanol becomes cheap and easy in poor countries, it would hasten the conversion of forestlands and other wilderness into a fuel source.  

Source: John A. Baden, "Is Ethanol a Pure Green Elixir?" Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment, October 18, 2006.


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