In the growing firestorm of criticisms about ethanol and other biofuels, the facts are being badly burned. Opponents decry policy incentives to encourage the industry's growth and make specious claims that American biofuels are driving up food prices and perhaps even encouraging the destruction of forests in other parts of the world. But no one is stopping to ask if any of it is true.
Let's start with the allegedly misbegotten incentives. The United States invests roughly $3 billion a year through a 51-cent-per-gallon credit to promote the production and use of renewable fuels like ethanol. The return on that investment? Taxpayers are saving approximately $6 billion that would otherwise be spent on counter-cyclical crop price supports, plus an additional $15 billion reduction in the country's petroleum import bill.
That is reason enough for anyone interested in America's prosperity or national security to support continued investment in biofuels. But that's really just the beginning.
Numerous well-documented studies have shown that by replacing oil with fuel made from biomass, America is reducing its net carbon dioxide emissions and thereby taking a bite out of global warming. That's why many environmental groups that might otherwise reflexively oppose the growth of a new industry support incentives to spur the development and use of ethanol and other renewable fuels.
Yet the attacks continue. The claims that biofuel production in the United States might indirectly encourage rainforests to be cut down were published recently in the hallowed pages of the journal Science. The rabidly anti-ethanol Wall Street Journal quickly piled on: "The ink is still moist on Capitol Hill's latest energy bill and, as if on cue, a scientific avalanche is demolishing its assumptions. To wit, trendy climate-change policies like ethanol and other biofuels are actually worse for the environment than fossil fuels."
But it turns out that "scientific avalanche" is itself being demolished. The studies published in Science offered no new data to substantiate their claim of a causal connection between U.S. ethanol and forest destruction - just a theoretical model that has since been roundly debunked by respected researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory and Biomass Program.
Meanwhile, real-world data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture simultaneously belie claims that American ethanol is causing arable land to be cleared elsewhere and food prices to rise.
Yields up, not acreage
In fact, the data show that the total acreage devoted to corn in America is not projected to go up, but that annual corn yields are expected to rise steadily - from 155.3 bushels per acre this year to 173.3 bushels per acre in 2017. That helps explain why the USDA also projects that corn supplies for export, feed and other nonbiofuel uses will hold steady even as ethanol production expands.
Those steady corn supplies are just one reason you can't blame ethanol for food price increases. The real drivers of consumer food price inflation, as the USDA or any reputable economist will attest, are nonfarm factors like labor costs, energy prices, transportation, packaging and marketing. In fact, all grains and other farm products, combined, account for just 19 cents of the consumer's food dollar.
If there is any problem with biofuels it is that America needs to produce more, not less, to put an end to the pickpocketing of our national purse by OPEC. This year, we will import 5 billion barrels of oil. At $100 a barrel, that amounts to a $500 billion tax that we pay directly to foreign petro-tyrannies every year - a tribute three times the size of the economic stimulus package just passed by Congress. Think about that: What Congress is giving us to avert recession, OPEC is taking away - three times over.
We need to use renewable fuels as a tool to break the oil cartel - and we can. Congress should pass a bill mandating that all new cars sold in America must be flex-fuel vehicles that can run on any combination of gasoline, ethanol or methanol. The technology is readily available, and it only costs about $100 per vehicle.
By making America a flex-fuel market, we will effectively make flex-fuel the international standard.
Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Astronautics, an aerospace engineering research and development firm and a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Readers may write to him at Pioneer Astronautics, 11111 West Eighth Ave., Unit-A, Lakewood, Colo. 80215.