Corn Ethanol & its Unintended Consequences for California

Growth of the corn ethanol industry in California is fraught with unintended consequences, none of which are beneficial to the economy or the environment of the state. They include impacts on our overcommitted water resources, on our air quality, on the price of food, and on the financial burden to citizens while private investors profit.

All of the water systems upon which the state depends, to serve both agriculture and the urban sector, are oversubscribed. Ethanol requires large amounts of water both to grow the corn and to process it, putting corn into direct competition with our agricultural industry that feeds half the nation with all of its fruits, vegetables and nuts.

Corn ethanol requires 3.7 to 5 gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of ethanol just in the manufacturing process. Cellulosic ethanol from other plant materials is far in the future and will require 6 gallons of water for each gallon of ethanol to manufacture, though the energy output is 4-5 times greater than for corn ethanol.

States such as water rich Minnesota and Iowa complain that the ethanol industry is mining their groundwater, causing some plants to be closed because the groundwater supply has been so depleted. In many places in California, especially in the San Joaquin Valley, the ground has already subsided many feet because of groundwater mining.

Approximately 14 percent of the U.S. corn crop is irrigated and this irrigated acreage consumes almost 18 million acre-feet per year of water—much of which is overdrafted from the Ogallala aquifer in the Great Plains. To put this water requirement in perspective, the average annual flow of the Colorado River at Lee’s Ferry is only about 14 million acre-feet per year.

Almost all of California’s agriculture is dependent on irrigation. Diverting millions of gallons of water from California farms to ethanol will disrupt the nation’s food supply for growing since corn is a very water intensive crop, and it will also add to the problem of pesticide and fossil fuel fertilizer run-off polluting our waterways. Shifting our valuable farmland from vegetables to mono-cropping corn is already happening in Kern County.

If all the vehicles in California operated on E85 [the policy of the Governor and Legislature], the ethanol required would consume 70 percent of the entire U.S. corn crop, but only 13.6 percent of the energy in the fuel would be renewable because of the heavy use of fossil fuel.

In Iowa and Indiana, the Sierra Club has sued because ethanol plants have made neighbors ill from toxics in the air and the water. Biofuels are not as clean as they would have us believe. Ethanol molecules are microscopically small and escape from gas tanks and hoses. Its use increases NOX by 5%, and for every 18 degrees fahrenheit increase in temperature over baseline, evaporative emissions double. Ground level ozone is also increased. While the ARB is required by state law to ensure that emissions do not increase, plans for mitigation are years away from being implemented. And corn is not the best raw material for fuel. It takes 10 gallons of ethanol to produce the energy equivalent of about 7 gallons of gasoline, and greenhouse gas reductions are minuscule.

Very much like the original backers of MTBE, both from industry and major environmental groups, who adamantly ignored the warnings regarding MTBE’s ability to contaminate drinking water, many of these same people are avoiding the unintended consequences of diverting millions of gallons of water into ethanol plants. They fought to preserve the oxygenate mandate so that ethanol could replace MTBE, which delayed MTBE’s removal from California’s gasoline by several years. Only after many wells in California were contaminated, did they support its removal.

Already there are 235 ethanol plants under construction or in planning stages across the county, in addition to 111 operating plants. And there just isn’t enough corn to go around. If all the scores of factories under construction or planned go into operation, they will gobble up no less than half of the entire corn harvest by 2008.

Even though last year’s corn harvest was the third largest crop ever, food prices are rising in the supermarkets. Hog and cattle farmers are already bringing their animals to market early in an effort to save money on feed because the cost of a bushel of corn has doubled since September of 2006. As the price of grain goes up, people will go hungry. There were riots in Mexico in June because people were not able to afford corn for tortillas.

State Senator Tom McClintock (R) summed it up as follows: “The CARB regulations [to enforce the low carbon fuel standard] will undoubtedly hit Californians hard—but they will hit starving third world populations even harder. Basic foodstuffs are a small portion of the family incomes in affluent nations, but they consume more than half of family earnings in third world countries.”

The Federal Government subsidizes major agribusinesses, such as ADM and Cargill, to grow corn. It also provides funds to build plants, and the refiners are given $0.51 cents a gallon for blending ethanol into our gasoline. Now these same agribusinesses want California’s citizens to also pay more at the pump and supermarket by legislating additional subsidies in AB118.

A gallon of ethanol is less expensive than gasoline because of its subsidies, but we pay exactly the same amount for it at the pump. The oil companies profit by selling us a gallon of less expensive fuel for the same amount per gallon that we are now paying for gasoline. And we get less gas mileage from that gallon of ethanol, so we have to purchase more gasoline to drive the same number of miles. Everywhere the money flows out of our pockets into theirs.

Alternative energy for transportation does not have to be liquid fuels. PV panels will supply energy for 25 or more years with very little maintenance for plug-in hybrid vehicles. Any crop that is grown for ethanol requires energy inputs annually, for growing, processing and distribution. Rather than subsidizing corn ethanol, we should have programs to place solar panels on the top open air layer of parking garages for plug-ins, and devote more funds to public transportation. Let the Venture Capitalists who are seeking subsidies risk their own funds to research better non-food crop solutions and bring them to market when they are ready.

After a laid-back career as a University research librarian (Harvard, University of Virginia, UCLA), Juliette Anthony chose seventeen years ago to begin work as environmental research consultant and activist. Starting at Heal The Bay in Santa Monica and Save Open Space in Northern Los Angeles County, she was instrumental in helping to save the 3,000 acres of Ahmanson Ranch and Soka University from development. She served as a twelve year Board Member of The Coalition for Clean Air, and research consultant on MTBE for Communities for a Better Environment. For the past six years, she has been a Legislative and Regulatory Consultant working on implementation of California’s Solar Initiative.

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