Quackery and facts about ethanol

Published 2:07 pm Monday, January 31, 2011

“Quackery” is a derogatory term most commonly used in reference to the medical profession.

However, it does have broader applications and I’m beginning to think it is time to start using the phrase to describe behavior and positions people are now taking with regard to everything from government to science.

A quack works to deceive you through any technique that will get you or the public to believe something is true that is not.

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It’s akin to propaganda and has been widely used by politicians practicing the art of deception by constantly repeating a lie or a position with the intent of getting you to believe that it is true even when there is no factual basis for their deception. Even news shows practice this quackery.

How do they get away with it? All of us normal human beings are capable of only knowing so much and we’re dependent upon credible experts to boil it down and give us the straight talk. It’s gotten to the point where there are no credible sources of information left.

The Internet seems to have made it worse because people using it don’t seem to have a way to “reality check” the propaganda they read and it seems to be a media based more on popularity contests than factual and intelligent discourse.

So, I’m going to start taking various issues and try to present the factual information in hopes that a few of us can begin to have intelligent discussions.

For this month, I’ve chosen ethanol because I have heard some outrageous claims made in editorials and from people that clearly don’t have the facts or possibly understand the facts.


The data say we are producing about 11 billion gallons of ethanol per year and growing at a clip of about 10 percent per year. By comparison, we burn about 160 billion gallons of gasoline per year and 80 percent of it contains ethanol. This volume of ethanol use replaces about 364 million barrels of oil each year. At the current cost of a barrel of oil, that’s in the neighborhood of $32 billion that doesn’t go overseas.

There are approximately 200 ethanol plants in the U.S. in at least 26 states. The industry is becoming de-centralized unlike the oil industry that concentrates jobs in the Gulf States.


In 2009, the ethanol industry contributed $53.3 billion dollars to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The industry supports about 400,000 jobs including operations personnel, engineers, chemists, scientists, research and development professionals as well as accountants, managers and financial professionals. About 75 percent of the people make salaries over $50,000 per year and 99 percent have health care benefits.


One bushel of livestock corn (not the human consumption form) will produce 2.8 gallons of ethanol and, as a by-product, yield 17 pounds (about 1/3 of a bushel) of high-quality livestock feed.

This means for every 2.8 gallons of ethanol produced, 1/3 of a bushel of livestock corn is replaced with high-quality livestock feed. The ratio of energy input to energy output is higher for ethanol than for gasoline. Ethanol produces about 2.3 units of energy for each unit of energy input.


Weather, increasing world demand and high oil prices are the primary culprits that impact food prices. Ethanol’s impact on price increases is less that 10 percent (best estimate 4 percent). Other factors make up the remaining 90-plus percent of price increases.

The US farmer has considerable elasticity in supplying demand for both food grade and livestock grade corn. There is considerable acreage (estimates as high as 80 million acres) of vacant or fallowed farm land each year in the US, much of which is in the farm subsidies programs.

Additionally, yields for corn production have risen 3.1 bushels per acre in the past decade and are now at 165.2 bushels per acre. In 2009, farmers used 7 million acres less of land than in 2007 and still produced 13.2 billion bushels of corn. The yield is predicted to rise to 177 bushels per year by 2015 and as much as 300 bushels per acre by 2030.


It is without doubt that ethanol reduces the number of miles you can drive on a gallon of gas. For the common E10 (10 percent ethanol/gasoline blend), you can expect to get 3 percent less mpgs. If you burn the E85 (85 percent ethanol) in your fuel-flex vehicle, you can expect 20 – 28 percent less mileage.


This subject seems to be full of quackery and I’m sure this will just stir up the zealots. Anyway, transportation seems to be the biggest threat. Not in terms of release to the environment of ethanol but the danger of explosion and fire is relatively higher than gasoline.

Even considering the lower mileage aspect of ethanol, greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions of 29 percent occur. The current volume of ethanol use in fuel reduced GHG emissions by about 17 million tons in 2009 or the equivalent of removing 2.5 million cars off the highway. Ethanol production requires about 3 gallons of water for every gallon of ethanol.

By comparison, hamburger requires about 4 gallons and chicken requires about 11.5 gallons per pound.

Surface water contamination from fertilizers and insecticides is clearly present from all agricultural activities. It is a technical and engineering challenge that is no worse or better whether the crop is corn for human, animal or ethanol consumption. Ethanol also replaces a very bad actor, MTBE, as an octane enhancer.

The facts tell a different story about ethanol than what I’ve been hearing from the quacks.

It would appear the up side for our economy and national security for reducing oil consumption are huge. There are some downsides regarding fuel economy and some environmental challenges but these can be resolved by American ingenuity.

There appears to be only minimal threats and impacts to the food chain, and the incentives to continue to improve crop yields appear to be driven by the ethanol industry.

The techniques developed will help improve all crop yields that will be needed to feed a growing population.

Rodney Gibson is the former mayor of Saluda.