News Story

Children of the Corn

Lawmakers gas up on ethanol mythology

Despite growing international condemnation of the government promotion of corn ethanol, on April 17 the Michigan Senate overwhelmingly ratified legislation to increase state-based incentives for converting crops - primarily corn - into automotive fuel. The vote took place at a time when the price of corn in the United States was hovering near its historical high, driving up the cost of groceries across the nation and around the world.

Three of the bills in this legislative package passed with unanimous support and one - a proposal to create a specialty license plate for biofuels such as ethanol - drew just nine dissent-ing votes out of 38. These are among 32 ethanol-related bills pending before the Michigan Legislature. An earlier vote on one of these was the subject of a story in the January/February 2008 edition of Michigan Capitol Confidential: "Corny Energy Plans."

In addition to state ethanol incentives, the federal government provides a 51 cent per gallon subsidy for domestically produced ethanol - primarily corn-based - and also a 54 cent per gallon tariff to deter the importation of foreign ethanol. Sugarcane is a comparatively rare crop in the continental United States, but is often the main ingredient of foreign ethanol and is considered by some energy experts to be far more efficient than corn-based ethanol.

Regardless, scientists, economists, energy experts and journalists representing nearly every point on the ideological spectrum have overwhelmingly come to appreciate that mixing food and fuel markets for political reasons has done American consumers no discernable good, while producing measurable harm. Noting that even a prominent left-wing economist had turned against ethanol, Mark J. Perry, professor of economics and finance at the University of Michigan-Flint, summed up a partial listing of skeptics :

"Anytime you have Paul Krugman agreeing on ethanol with such a diverse group as the [Wall Street Journal], Reason Magazine, the Cato Institute, Investor's Business Daily, Rolling Stone Magazine, the Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, John Stossel, The Ecological Society of America, the American Enterprise and Brookings Institutions, the Heritage Foundation, George Will and Time Magazine, you know that ethanol has to be one of the most misguided public policies in U.S. history."

Eighty-five percent of American ethanol production requires corn and there are already five ethanol plants operating in Michigan with four more on the way. 

Biofuel expert David Pimentel, a professor at Cornell University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, asserts that ethanol diversions consumed 20 percent of American corn production in 2006, yet displaced just 1 percent of domestic oil production. The World Bank announced in April that world food prices had jumped 83 percent over the last three years.  As much as one-third of this inflation can be blamed on ethanol production, according to Chris Peterson, professor of agribusiness at Michigan State University, testifying in May at a meeting of the Michigan Renewable Fuels Commission - an organization created by state lawmakers in 2006 to "encourage the production and use of biodiesel and ethanol products."

While corn works well as energy for human bodies, it comes up short as a motor fuel. According to the U.S. Dept. of Energy, 1.33 gallons of E-85 (ethanol mixed with at least 15 percent gasoline) is needed to replace a single gallon of pure gasoline. Bloomberg News reports that the U.S. Postal Service proved this between 1999 and 2005, when 30,000 E-85 vehicles purchased for its fleet drove down mileage by 29 percent, causing the consumption of 1.5 million additional gallons. On the production end, professor Pimentel reports that "40 percent of the energy contained in one gallon of corn ethanol is expended to produce it." Ironically, he added, most of that production energy is derived from "oil and natural gas" through the use of inputs required to grow and transport the corn.

In other words, corn ethanol has a voracious appetite for the very fossil fuels that its supporters claim it should be replacing.

Despite all of this, Don Koivisto, director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture, declares corn ethanol to be a "quantum leap forward in the biofuels boom," and he predicts that the conflict between food and fuel will be avoided by a changeover to cellulosic ethanol, which is derived from inedible agricultural products such as switchgrass.

But according to an otherwise optimistic article about cellulosic ethanol published on the Popular Mechanics Web site in January, this form of fuel is currently twice as expensive to produce as corn ethanol, not to mention regular gasoline. Similarly, Cornell's Pimentel notes that cellulosic ethanol requires 70 percent more energy to produce than corn ethanol, again using mostly fossil fuels to get the job done. A Wall Street Journal editorial in May concluded: "...sometimes even massive government aid can't turn science projects into products."

According to the descriptions on the Mackinac Center's Web site, Senate Bill 1126 would require the state to market "renewable" fuel sites; Senate Bill 1128 would create an ethanol and alternative energy subsidy/regulation "how to" guide; and Senate Bill 1130 would establish new ethanol and alternative fuel subsidies.

Every single member of the Michigan Senate voted in favor of these bills on April 17. Their names and contact information are listed on page 10.

Senate Bill 1129 also passed as part of this package by a vote of 29-9. MichiganVotes states that this bill would "authorize a specialty license plate recognizing alternative fuels, and give the net revenue generated from sale of the plates to the subsidy and promotion program proposed by Senate Bill 1130."

The nine senators who voted against creating a specialty license plate for biofuels were all Democrats. Their names are as follows:

Sen. Ray Basham, D-Taylor
Sen. Liz Brater, D-Ann Arbor
Sen. Irma Clark-Coleman, D-Detroit
Sen. Gilda Jacobs, D-Huntington Woods
Sen. Michael Prusi, D-Ishpeming
Sen. Mark Schauer, D-Battle Creek
Sen. Martha Scott, D-Detroit
Sen. Michael Switalski, D-Roseville
Sen. Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing

For additional information and an opportunity to comment on this issue, please see

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.