Ethanol and energy independence

Writing in Slate, Robert Bryce has produced a rebuttal of the idea that ethanol is part of the road to energy independence. Essentially, this is because it can only displace a portion of the demand for petroleum products in general:

The corn ethanol scam cannot, has not, and will not significantly reduce overall oil use or significantly cut oil imports because it only replaces one segment of the crude-oil barrel. Furthermore, all the talk about “cellulosic ethanol,” a substance that, in theory, can be profitably produced in commercial quantities from grass, wood chips, or other biomass, is largely misplaced because, like corn ethanol, it will only supplant gasoline.

If this analysis is correct, yet another problem can be lain at the feet of ethanol, alongside the low energy return on investment and dubious climate change benefits.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

5 thoughts on “Ethanol and energy independence”

  1. Saturday, September 26, 2009
    Does Ethanol Reduce Petroleum Imports?

    One of the main arguments in favor of ethanol production in the U.S. is that it supports the goals of energy independence by getting us off of foreign oil. After all, we could just tell the entire Mideast to take a hike while we grow our own fuel. In fact, there have been some truly grandiose claims made around this theme. Of course if we are making more ethanol, we are importing less oil as a result. Right? Maybe not. Has anyone actually taken a good look?

    A couple of years ago, I looked at total gasoline consumption in an essay called The Mythical Ethanol Threat. My conclusion from that was that despite the rapid ramp up of ethanol, there was no apparent drop in gasoline demand. In fact, gasoline demand (which was corrected for ethanol content by backing that out) actually grew at a steady pace even as ethanol was ramping up sharply. But a couple of years have passed, and some comments following my last essay got me curious: Has U.S. ethanol production actually impacted petroleum imports?

    From 2002 through 2007, ethanol production in the U.S. more than tripled: From 2.1 billion gallons per year to 6.5 billion gallons per year. (Source – RFA: Historic U.S. Fuel Ethanol Production). Yet total net petroleum imports (oil, gasoline, diesel, etc.) increased over that time period by 2.1 million barrels per day – from 10.2 million bpd in 2002 to 12.3 million bpd in 2007. (Source – EIA: Weekly U.S. Total Crude Oil and Petroleum Products Net Imports). So what does this mean?

    Tuesday, September 29, 2009
    Ethanol, Imports, and the MTBE Effect

    I am traveling later this week, and will be on the road for nine days (Colorado, New York, Massachusetts). I was trying to wrap up the loose ends from my previous post with a much more comprehensive look at the ethanol/import issue before I travel. However, there are a couple of questions I had for the EIA before I finish up. As soon as I hear back from them, I will post a number of graphs and I will put my spreadsheet up so everyone can pick through it. But if I don’t hear back within a couple of days, it may be a while before I can put up the final installment.

  2. “But one thing is pretty clear. Our petroleum imports have not fallen as ethanol has ramped up. So it is really hard to make a strong case based on the data that increased ethanol production is reducing our dependence on foreign oil. One reason for this is something I have talked about before, and that is scale. In 2007, our oil demand was 20.7 million barrels per day. When the lower energy content of ethanol is factored in, the 6.5 billion gallons of ethanol produced in 2007 is only worth 0.26 million barrels per day – just over 1% of our total petroleum consumption.** Factor in that some petroleum (and other fossil fuels as well) was used in the manufacture of the ethanol, and the net contribution falls even further.”

  3. Ethanol

    “Ethanol is difficult to scale up to become a major gasoline substitute. Ethanol production requires a large amount of corn to produce relatively little gasoline. Ethanol production requires 2.8 bushels of corn per gallon of ethanol. At present, approximately 25% of US grown corn produces 7 billion gallons, or 3.3% of the energy content of gasoline (and only 1.5% of all US finished oil products) consumed in the US. If the entire corn crop was used to produce ethanol, it would only offset 6% of total US oil consumption.”

    Downey, Morgan. Oil 101. p.193 hardcover

  4. That’s two strikes against ethanol.

    First, it cannot replicate the whole slate of products made from crude oil: natural gas, natural gas liquids (ethane, propane, butane), naptha, gasoline, jet fuel, kerosene, diesel fuel, fuel oil, oils and lubricants, waxes, bitumen, coke, and carbon black.

    Second, it cannot replace more than a fraction of the oil used just for gasoline production: about 26% of global crude oil usage.

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