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Sioux Falls, SD -- On last Friday night's 20/20 program on ABC, newsman John Stossel addressed what he called, "the ethanol myth."
The program told viewers to be skeptical of politicians who tout ethanol as the clean-burning solution to America's energy crisis.
"The idea that ethanol is the answer is a myth," according to Stossel, a longtime consumer advocate and author of the new book, "Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity." Ethanol makes sense to politicians from both parties, including presidential candidates Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., Barack Obama, D-Ill., and former Sen. John Edwards, because they say it's a clean and renewable energy source that will slow global warming, protect the environment and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. "Plus, it just sounds good: Ethanol's made from corn, and we grow corn, so it just seems natural," added Stossel.
But if ethanol makes so much sense, we wouldn't have to subsidize it or mandate its consumption, said Stossel. On the program, Jerry Taylor of the Cato Institute said, "If you can make a profit in this economy by putting something on the market, the government doesn't need to put a gun to your head."
But, according to Stossel, ethanol producers do need the help of government subsidies if anyone is going to buy their product, because without subsidies it would cost much more than gasoline. He points out that other critics say the idea that ethanol is good for America in terms of energy prices, foreign policy or the environment is a myth.
"I can only surmise that 20/20 desperately needs to gain ratings and attention because the program is resorting to spectacular hyperbole to discredit a renewable fuel that holds real promise for this nation's economy, environment and energy security," said Brian Jennings, executive vice president of the American Coalition for Ethanol (ACE), in a statement. Jennings was not interviewed on the program. "The only myth here is found in ABC's flawed analysis and lazy journalism, which uses only anti-ethanol sources to paint this distorted picture of reality and to stir up controversy where none exists."
In an interview on the program, Taylor notes that when ethanol is produced "it takes a lot of fossil fuels to make the fertilizer, to run the tractor, to build the silo, to get that corn to a processing plant, to run the processing plant." Then there's the energy it takes to move the ethanol around. Because ethanol degrades, it's not possible to transport it in pipelines like we do oil, so using ethanol means putting many more polluting trucks on the road to deliver it.
Because of that, a number of recent studies show that it takes just about as much energy to produce ethanol as you get when you burn ethanol. "Its net energy balance is zero, more or less," said Taylor.
"20/20 cites a recent study by a Stanford University professor who claims that the use of ethanol will actually be worse for the environment than straight gasoline, a claim contrary to years of real-world experience using ethanol brands," said Jennings of ACE.
On the program, atmospheric scientist Mark Z. Jacobson of Stanford University, said a switch to ethanol won't do anything to address climate change and ethanol fumes may actually be worse for public health than the fumes from gas-powered vehicles. Emissions from ethanol-fueled cars contain more of the carcinogenic chemicals formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, Jacobson said, and the vehicles will also boost atmospheric levels of ozone, a major component of smog, which will weaken people's immune systems and cause lung damage.
"In the words of one petroleum industry executive, asking the oil industry to sell ethanol is like asking cattlemen to sell tofu -- it's not their product and they'd rather not use it," said Jennings. "The transportation fuel supply is a very profitable status quo for the petroleum industry and they have no reason to want to change. That's why it is necessary for the federal government to step in, breaking up this de facto crude oil mandate and outlining an increase in the amount of renewable fuels the U.S. uses each year."
Taylor of the Cato Institute, though, contends that ethanol's popularity has to do with politics as usual.
"It's no mystery that people who want to be president support the corn ethanol program," said Taylor. "The first caucus is in the state of Iowa, and if you're not willing to sacrifice children to the corn God you will not get out of the Iowa primary with more than 1 percent of the vote."
Ethanol also won't cure our dependence on foreign oil, according to Stossel, who reported on a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that says even turning all of America's corn into ethanol would only meet 12 percent of our gasoline demand.
However, Jennings claims that Stossel falls into the trap of concluding that because ethanol cannot instantly replace all the gasoline the U.S. consumes, it is somehow not worthy as an alternative solution.
"The bottom line is that the world's oil supply is finite, expensive, and not very environmentally friendly," said Jennings. "What options do we have but to look for better alternatives? Ethanol is here today as the most real, meaningful alternative that America has to combat our dependence on oil. With ethanol's proven benefits for the environment, economy, and energy security, and its great future potential with new feedstocks and technologies to replace a large portion of our gasoline use, there really is no down side here. I guess that's why the real ethanol story doesn't make for very interesting television," Jennings said.
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