To hear all the hype, you'd think ethanol is the miracle drug of this or any other century, able to cure everything from America's addiction to foreign oil to global warming to hemorrhoids.
Ethanol is alcohol distilled from organic matter. You can drink it or you can burn it. As a fuel, it has quite a few things going for it. It burns clean - much cleaner than gasoline. In the United States the great bulk of ethanol is made from corn, but it can be made from virtually anything that can be fermented - potatoes, sugar cane, sawgrass, even wood pulp.
That means ethanol, unlike petroleum, is a renewable resource. It also means we can produce it here instead of buying it from those nasty countries in the Middle East.
All this has prompted people from all points on the political spectrum and at all levels of government to get on board the ethanol bandwagon. (George W. Bush is an enthusiastic ethanol fan, which in itself should make any reasonable human being skeptical.) Last year the Oregon Legislature jumped aboard the bandwagon too, passing a law requiring all gasoline sold in the state to contain at least 10% ethanol.
No doubt the legislature had the best of intentions, but it failed to look at all the facts before it leaped. This "miracle fuel" is not going to solve all our energy problems. And there are some problems it probably will make worse.
First, there's fuel economy. A gallon of ethanol contains less energy than a gallon of gasoline, which means it won't propel your car as far. Ethanol users report a reduction in mileage of nearly 40% or more - no small matter with the price of gas pushing $4 a gallon.
Another negative economic impact is rising food costs. As croplands are converted to growing corn and other stuff to make ethanol, the price of everything from beef to beer is being pushed upward.
There's a long-running dispute about whether ethanol even is worth making, in terms of net energy gain. Supporters say a gallon of ethanol yields as much as 35% more energy than it takes to produce it. But more skeptical scientists have calculated that when you factor in all the energy needed to produce the crop, distill the fuel and transport it (ethanol can't travel in pipelines and has to be shipped by truck, train or barge) there's a net energy loss of nearly 30%.
Finally, even if ethanol production was pushed to the utmost, it wouldn't amount to much more than a drop in the American gas tank. A 2006 analysis by University of Minnesota researchers concluded that even if every acre of corn was turned into ethanol, it wouldn't supply more than 12% of the nation's motor fuel needs.
Considering all the known disadvantages of ethanol and all the unanswered questions, the Oregon ethanol mandate was a bad idea and should be scrapped ASAP. To help the process along, we're giving it THE BOOT.