Monday, May 11, 2015

A Lack of Planning On Your Part...

...Sometimes does cause an emergency on my part.

Continuing in our vein of forecasting and scenario planning, today I'm going to look at the unintended consequences of the U.S. Energy Policy Act of 2005 which required the addition of ethanol to gasoline to reduce fossil fuel dependence and promote cleaner air. According to William A. Sherden in his book "Best Laid Plans: The Tyranny of Unintended Consequences and How to Avoid Them," (2011) the 2005 Act called for the use of 4 billion gallons of ethanol in 2007 ramping up to 35 billion gallons by 2017 (only 2 years from now, BTW).

On the surface, of course, the 2005 Act looks to be a step toward breaking us free from non-renewable resources and moving toward renewable ones such as biomass fermentation -- a direction we as a species MUST go.

Unfortunately, as seems to happen all too often with political initiatives, someone didn't do their science. David Pimentel of Cornell University, however, did do the science and shows us that there is no energy benefit to using biomass-based liquid fuel and the strategy is not sustainable. Let's look why.

U.S. ethanol is primarily produced from corn - a crop that is also used as food for both humans and animals. Growing the corn requires fuel for planting, cultivating, and harvesting the fields as well as transporting the finished product (pipelines tend to contaminate the ethanol with water so it must be shipped via truck/train). Also, many of the pesticides and fertilizers used on the corn have a petroleum base, and don't forget about the heat needed for distillation. As a matter of fact, Pimental estimated that ethanol consumes 29% more energy than it creates and only accounts for about 1% of energy production (Sheridan, 2011).

Perhaps worse though are the unintended environmental side-effects. The original goal of offsetting CO2 emissions from automobile exhaust have been cancelled out by CO2 produced growing, refining, and transporting the ethanol and increased corn production in the U.S. Midwest has lead to greater fertilizer runoff, encouraging algae that deplete oxygen and kill fish and other wildlife at the mouth of the Mississippi in the Gulf of Mexico.

Perhaps even worse is the impact to worldwide food production. According to James Conca in Forbes article "It's Final -- Corn Ethanol Is Of No Use" in the year 2000 90% of corn produced in the U.S. went to feeding livestock and people --  many of which were in impoverished areas. However, in 2013 40% of corn production went to ethanol and 45% to livestock leaving just 15% of corn production going to humans. Couple the facts above with the facts that the U.S. produces 40% of worldwide corn and 70% of worldwide corn imports come from the U.S. and we can begin to see the full picture of ethanol's impact on world food supplies.

Hindsight is 20/20 as they say but one has to wonder that none of these effects were uncovered in the pre-Energy Policy Act of 2005 analysis


Sherden, W. A. (2011). Best laid plans: The tyranny of unintended consequences and how to avoid them. ABC-CLIO.

Conca, J. (2014, April 20). It's Final -- Corn Ethanol Is Of No Use. Retrieved from

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