Ethanol politics


in Economics, Politics, The environment

Evening sky from office window, with reflected lights

This Robert Rapier article on the politics of biofuels makes some well-worn points (about how ethanol probably takes more energy to produce than it contains, how it drives harmful land use changes, etc), it also contains some interesting new arguments. The best bit might be the politically motivated change of heart ‘straight talking’ US presidential candidate John McCain has experienced:


“Ethanol is a product that would not exist if Congress didn’t create an artificial market for it. No one would be willing to buy it. Yet thanks to agricultural subsidies and ethanol producer subsidies, it is now a very big business – tens of billions of dollars that have enriched a handful of corporate interests – primarily one big corporation, ADM. Ethanol does nothing to reduce fuel consumption, nothing to increase our energy independence, nothing to improve air quality.”


“I support ethanol and I think it is a vital, a vital alternative energy source not only because of our dependency on foreign oil but its greenhouse gas reduction effects.”

The article also makes some good points about the different political situations in the various states considering ethanol as an option. China is increasingly wary on the basis of concerns about land and food. It has now put a halt to new corn ethanol projects. The EU is also concerned about the unintended consequences of ethanol. The fact that they mostly import it, rather than growing it domestically, arguably gives them greater political freedom to investigate claims about ethanol and make decisions about how good an option it really is. Political leaders in the United States and Canada may face too many entrenched farm interests to make a similarly objective judgment.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah February 11, 2008 at 9:46 pm

There’s more condemnation of biofuels from Monbiot, “Apart from used chip fat, there is no such thing as a sustainable biofuel” at

. February 13, 2008 at 3:16 pm

The thing the ecologically illiterate don’t realize about an ecosystem is that it’s a system. A system! A system maintains a certain fluid stability that can be destroyed by a misstep in just one niche. A system has order, a flowing from point to point. If something dams the flow, order collapses. The untrained miss the collapse until too late. That’s why the highest function of ecology is the understanding of consequences.

. July 30, 2011 at 10:53 am

Ethanol subsidies
Fiscal sobriety
A bipartisan vote to end ethanol subsidies is a small but heartening sign

TWO of the iron rules of American politics are that Republicans don’t vote for higher taxes and only the foolhardy vote against Iowa. Both were broken on June 16th when senators from both parties voted by sizeable margins to repeal a tax credit and tariff on ethanol.

Since 2004 blenders have received a credit, now worth 45 cents, for each gallon of ethanol they mix with regular gasoline (petrol). Most of the benefit flows down to farmers. And since 1980 domestic producers have also been protected by a 54 cent tariff on imports, which serves to keep out ethanol made more cheaply from Brazilian sugar cane.

Defenders say the credit and tariff reduce American dependence on imported fossil fuels and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. But it is an inefficient way to do both. Because ethanol produces less energy than petrol and requires the burning of fossil fuels in its production, and because ethanol would still be used without a credit, the taxpayer pays about $1.78 to reduce petrol consumption by one gallon via corn-based ethanol. Taking everything into account, ethanol releases almost as much carbon dioxide as petrol does. As Michael Greenstone, the director of the Hamilton Project, a liberal research group, puts it, “Ethanol is largely farm support policy, not environmental policy.”

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