Ethanol Inefficient, Says Researcher

Agriculture, Energy, Environment, Frontier Centre, Media Appearances, Role of Government, Saskatchewan

Canada’s policy of promoting ethanol production is an inefficient use of energy and tax dollars, of dubious benefit to the environment and harmful to the livestock industry, according to the former CEO of the George Morris Centre.

Larry Martin, a senior policy research fellow with the Guelph, Ont.-based centre, questioned ethanol’s purported environmental benefits and its value as a substitute for fossil fuels at a luncheon meeting Monday sponsored by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

“Is this whole thing sustainable?” said Martin, referring to the cost of producing ethanol — denatured alcohol used as an octane enhancer in gasoline — relative to the cost of oil.

Ethanol production is sustainable, as long as oil prices remain high, said Martin, the former head of the agricultural economics and business department at the University of Guelph, who joined the George Morris Centre as a director in 1990, became CEO in 1998 and senior research fellow in 2007.

But Martin said the jury is out on whether ethanol production is sustainable from an energy efficiency perspective.

Citing one expert who “actually believes there is more energy used … in producing ethanol than you get out of it,” Martin said the energy gain in substituting ethanol for a similar quantity of gasoline is “close to zero.”

Even if one concludes, as Science Magazine did, that there could be a 10-per-cent energy gain by producing corn or wheat-based ethanol instead of gasoline, that pales in comparison to the energy efficiency of producing ethanol from sugarcane, which has a 370-per-cent energy gain.

“The fundamental question is (whether grain-based ethanol production) is an efficient process? Can you ever do it without subsidies? My view is you can’t.”

Even if grain-based ethanol production was energy efficient, Martin argued it will never significantly reduce, let alone eliminate, our need for imported oil.

For example, Martin said diverting 30 per cent of the 13-billion-bushel U.S. corn crop to ethanol production would replace 40 days of imported oil; 60 per cent of the crop would replace 80 days of imports.

Martin also took aim at ethanol’s environmental benefits, claiming a recent study indicated that ethanol production, which produces nitrogen oxide along with carbon dioxide, “puts more greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere than oil does.”

And because of the heavy subsidization of ethanol production in the U.S., the cost of removing CO2 from the atmosphere using ethanol costs $500 US per tonne.

“There are many more efficient ways to reduce GHGs than this.”

Finally, Martin said ethanol production conflicts with livestock production because the two industries compete for the same feedstock — feed grains, like corn or wheat.