Is John McCain Right on Ethanol?

posted by Josh Ran

While watching the presidential debates last night, the first thing I noticed was that Stephen Colbert is right: John McCain sticks out his tongue more often than a lizard on a hot Arizona day.

The second thing I noticed was that McCain said some interesting things about biofuels (or, as we call them, agrofuels):

“Government spending has gone completely out of control… I know how to eliminate programs. I have fought against – well, one of them would be… a number of subsidies for ethanol. I oppose subsidies for ethanol because I thought it distorted the market and created inflation. Senator Obama supported those subsidies. I would eliminate the tariff on sugarcane-based ethanol from Brazil.”

Now, I’m fairly used to routinely disagreeing with McCain on just about every issue. (After all, this is the guy who voted against making Martin Luther King Day a federal holiday and consistently opposes increases in the Federal minimum wage.) But on this one, I have to admit that I agree with the guy. Kinda.

In the 2006 State of the Union Address, President Bush said that the U.S. should replace 75% of imported oil with alternative fuels – including corn-based ethanol – by 2025. Many environmentalists thought that supporting this was a no-brainer – after all, burning agrofuels is less polluting, and agrofuels don’t require any nasty wars for us to get them out of the ground and into our gas tanks.

The problem was that lots of people were only really thinking about the environmental cost of burning agrofuels, and weren’t thinking about the cost of producing them.

One of the big problems with corn-based ethanol is that U.S. agriculture is incredibly mechanized – and, thus, that producing corn for ethanol in the U.S. actually costs more in terms of carbon emissions than it saves. According to a research study by two top ecologists, a liter of corn-based ethanol contains 5,100 kilocalories of energy – but it takes 6,600 kilocalories worth of fossil fuels (diesel for the farm machinery, petroleum to make fertilizers and pesticides, etc.) to produce enough corn for that liter of ethanol. The idea that corn-based ethanol saves fossil fuels is a complete boondoggle: you’re actually using less fossil fuels if you just put gas straight into your gas tank, rather than using it even more petroleum to make the same amount corn-based ethanol.

In fact – as Old Man Grumpus pointed out in last night’s debates – corn-based ethanol production in the U.S. would be totally financially impossible if it weren’t for massive government subsidies. Already in 2006, the U.S. government handed out $5.1 billion in ethanol subsidies; rather than going to small family farmers throughout the Midwest, however, these subsidies are going to a handful of massive U.S. agribusinesses. Archer Daniels Midland alone made up 28% of the U.S. ethanol market in 2006. And as ethanol subsidies skyrocket, a handful of corporations are reaping the profits: ADM’s profits increased a whopping 107% between 2005 and 2007, while agribusiness giant Cargill’s profits increased 156% between 2006 and 2008.

So, as McCain suggested, why not just shift agrofuels production to countries in the Global South – where agriculture doesn’t use as much fossil fuels, and where you can grow crops (like sugarcane) that are more fuel-efficient?

Well, it’s not quite that simple.

The biggest problem with agrofuels isn’t that they cost a lot, or that they suck up more fossil fuels than they save. It’s that producing enough agrofuels to power our planet’s gas-guzzlers takes a heck of a lot of farmland – which results both in massive deforestation, and in displacing subsistence crops that people need in order to feed their families.

And we’ve seen this happening a lot in the last few years. Much like the U.S., the EU has decided that 10% of transport fuel needs to be made up of “renewable fuels” by 2020. But in order to produce this much agrofuels, Europe would have to convert more than half of its existing farmland to agrofuels production – which is, needless to say, impossible. So, instead, the Europeans are buying palm oil from Southeast Asia – which is fueling massive deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia. (Thus, the Indonesian palm oil industry plans on expanding palm oil plantations by 40,000 square miles by 2020 – an amount of rainforest the size of Kentucky.)

And if the land being used to grow agrofuels doesn’t come from burning forests, it usually comes from displacing crops that people need in order to eat. Rising global food prices have been sparking riots and protests by poor people across the world – and yet, while the Bush Administration blames food prices on rising oil costs and China, a leaked World Bank report in July 2008 found that increased agrofuels consumption in the U.S. and Europe has caused global food prices to rise 75%. As the UK’s former chief government science adviser put it, “all we are doing by supporting [agrofuels] is subsidizing higher food prices, while doing nothing to tackle climate change.” 

The fuel to fill our SUVs with agrofuels is coming out of the bellies of poor people in the Global South (figuratively, not literally).

And that points to the part of McCain’s argument that I disagree with. It’s not a matter of switching corn-based ethanol for sugarcane-based ethanol, or palm oil-based ethanol. It’s a matter of recognizing, once and for all, that agrofuels are a false solution.