Is Ethanol Doomed to Failure?

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By all accounts, it may seem an incredulous proposition to some that the ethanol boom will go bust. With increasing investment in this important renewable, ethanol’s ability to wean the world off oil is simply too critical. But recently, the question of using food for fuel has launched a new debate over whether worldwide increases in food prices in addition to increased global warming from biofuel production is tenable over the long term.

On December 19, 2007, President George W. Bush signed into law the Energy Independence and Security Act which, among other initiatives, requires fuel producers to use at least 36 billion gallons of biofuel by 2022 (a sixfold increase). True to the Act’s title, the increase in biofuel production reflects an attempt to wean Americans off of volatile sources of Mideast oil which in turn would increase security at home. But while the nations are drinking from the well of this ostensibly viable renewable energy source, questions are already being raised about its conspicuous and dramatic consequences.

Ethanol and the Rise in Global Hunger
When people around the globe see rising prices for just about every food item they purchase along with growing hunger and poverty in underdeveloped nations, the world may well realize the stark consequences of using food for fuel. From a moral perspective alone, it is a human rights disaster of epic proportions. Indeed, the diversion of food for use as fuel is an untenable solution to our energy crisis and the resulting national security threat. However, there’s another problem with ethanol production: global warming.

Ethanol and Global Warming
Because of factors including the denuding of the world’s rainforests to plant corn and soybean crops for ethanol production in addition to agricultural and transportation activities, recent studies have shown that ethanol production emits an equal or even greater amount of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere as traditional fossil fuel production. With increased global warming comes a variety of other problems including even more hunger due to drought, topsoil erosion, and desertification.

The Promise of Cellulosic Ethanol
Despite all of ethanol’s shortcomings, it should be noted that not all ethanol is untenable. Holding great promise is cellulosic ethanol which is derived from biomass including switchgrass and wood chips. This type of ethanol bypasses all the problems in using food for fuel. Thus, with increased federal funding for cellulosic ethanol, we may see a much brighter ethanol future.

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