Like so many matters of public concern, the national dialogue on ethanol tends to the ahistorical and under-informed. Muddying things further is the fact the main parties to this debate—the one over America’s use of ethyl alcohol in fuel—are known to be serial obfuscators, each not to be trusted in its own special way.
Few without direct financial stake can object to calling out Big Agriculture and everything it has done to, ahem, encourage the federal government to mandate corn ethanol’s use in gasoline, as opposed to any other available feedstock, of which there are many. And Big Oil needs no introduction. One really hates to have to choose between the two.
But until solar and wind power charge our national fleet of electric and hydrogen vehicles, ethanol is worth discussing. Because all in all, gasoline is better with it in it. Its infirmities are real but often overstated. Its foes, especially oil interests—whose antipathy dates back to the 19th century—overlook the very real environmental and geopolitical benefits of the high-octane additive, so naturally endowed with explosive quality that it stands on its own for use as a pure fuel.
Subsidies to benefit the corn industrial complex are alas but another time-tested use of the public purse as an ATM for agricultural conglomerates such as ADM and ConAgra. They’re the ones to profit from our corn ethanol economy, at least in terms of dollars and cents. But there are other problems with today’s ethanol: Corn tends to be grown on petrochemical- and water-intensive farms with unnecessarily large carbon footprints. Some decry, too, the devotion of arable land to a fuel crop when the land could help to feed the starving. But though corn ethanol isn’t the best thing, ethanol in general is not a bad thing.
The harsh talk against it has worked. I spent an afternoon recently listening to fans at Charlotte Motor Speedway rail against it, with some even saying the removal of lead from NASCAR fuel in favor of ethanol had ruined the sport. True, many of them were drunk—on ethanol (grain alcohol), a solvent that can also loosen resins in a gas tank and rust and corrode some metals and plastics in fuel systems. This is a legitimate concern for fans of old cars, and, as SEMA points out, for users of some high-performance aftermarket products; ethanol isn’t appropriate for every application. But new machines can handle ethanol with simple changes in materials. So-called flex-fuel cars, which are capable of running on 85 percent ethanol/15 percent gasoline blends, prove this point and would do so more frequently if only more than 2 percent of all gas stations nationwide carried E85 (based on U.S. Energy Information Administration data for 2013, the most recent year for which info is available).
Ethanol isn’t perfect. It doesn’t boast the same specific energy as gasoline, meaning it returns worse fuel mileage in vehicles. Water use during production is an issue, though the same applies to oil. Ethanol, however, provides significant benefit to Americans in another way rarely remarked upon: By boosting octane in a relatively clean and healthful way, it does a distinct service displacing unwholesome predecessors such as lead—or benzene, xylene, methane, MMT, MTBE, and a host of other toxic horribles that refiners have added to gas in their quest to perk up octane-tired brews. Ethanol is not a neurotoxin, carcinogen, or mutagen, it biodegrades quickly, and we’re all the better for it.
GM’s legendary research boss Charles Kettering drove around America in 1920 in a Chevrolet running a 70/30 ethanol/gasoline blend. He stopped often to speechify about this wondrous new source of automotive fuel, which, he observed folksily, harnessed the power of the sun. He saw ethanol as an additive first, one that might eventually become a pure fuel for cars, supplied from cellulosic biomass. But curiously, a few short years later, he would completely forget about ethanol when called upon to defend lead, a new octane-boosting additive. Lead gas would be made ubiquitous by GM and its partners in the Ethyl Gasoline Corp., Standard Oil of New Jersey, today’s ExxonMobil. There were patents to be claimed for the use of lead and its manufacture, royalties to be earned. As for ethanol—an established fuel, a winning anti-knock additive, and a commodity that any idiot with a still could make in his backyard—not so much.