Corn-based ethanol has been at the center of a well-funded misinformation campaign launched and perpetuated by the Bush Administration. In fact Nicholas Hollis, President of the Agribusiness Council, believes that “ethanol is the largest scam in our nation’s history”[1].

Energy Secretary Sam Bodman promotes ethanol for Bush [2] and spreads the word through the Department of Energy and their websites. Amazingly, even the National Resources Defense Council is promoting ethanol. However, the negative environmental impacts of the ethanol cycle (everything from preparing the soil to the exhaust from vehicles) are huge.

The facts about corn-based ethanol are seriously under-reported by the media. The ethanol gold rush is gaining momentum and its time to look at the serious problems it’s creating. The environmental community needs to be a strong voice of opposition against Bush’s ethanol surge and the corn subsidies that our corn state politicians are only too eager to re-new in Farm Bill 2007. [3] For example, the recently elected Governor of Iowa has decided to turn the entire state into one big ethanol plant. He threw down the gauntlet in his inaugural address:

“Well, my fellow Iowans, this is our time. It’s our time to accept the challenge, to explore and discover Iowa’s unlimited potential. It’s our time to win the race to become the energy capital of the world. There is an energy rontier open before us, and we must explore it immediately. America and the world are counting on us,” Culver said. “Simply put, we can’t afford to duck this responsibility”. [4]

Many environmentalists know that the way most corn is grown in our country is very hard on soil and uses enormous amounts of water and chemicals. In fact, a recent report for the Department of Defense acknowledged that, “Current biomass-to-fuel methods of production present a significant environmental burden GHGs, soil depletion and erosion, waste water, etc.)”. [5]

To maximize the subsidies agribusiness receives, the corn producers use monocropping that makes the crop more susceptible to insects and disease. To overcome these threats to their yield, the corn producers apply enormous amounts of fertilizers and pesticides. Although atrazine has been banned in Europe, it is the most commonly used pesticide by US corn producers. The soil erosion caused by corn monocropping creates runoff and this chemical seeps into the drinking water in many communities. EPA has established a safe level in drinking water [6], but tests have discovered 75 times that amount in some Midwestern streams. [7]


exposure to levels that exceed EPA standards can cause congestion of heart, lungs and kidneys; low blood pressure; muscle spasms; weight loss; damage to adrenal glands. And long-term exposure has the potential of cardiovascular damage, retinal and some muscle degeneration and cancer. The chemicals used in US corn production have actually created a dead-zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

Ethanol proponents are now claiming that there is not enough corn to “feed” ethanol plants and want to put some of the 37 million acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program back into crop production. [8] Fortunately, groups like the Audubon Society are aware of this and are planning their strategy to oppose it [9] while groups
like the Institute for Trade and Agriculture Policy are in favor. Here is an explanation of the Conservation Reserve Program:

“The Conservation Reserve Program reduces soil erosion, protects the Nation’s ability to produce food and fiber, reduces sedimentation in streams and lakes, improves water quality, establishes wildlife habitat, and enhances forest and wetland resources. It encourages farmers to convert highly erodible cropland or other environmentally sensitive acreage to vegetative cover, such as tame or native grasses, wildlife plantings, trees, filterstrips, or riparian buffers. Farmers receive an annual rental payment for the term of the multi-year contract. Cost sharing is provided to establish the vegetative cover practices”. [10]

Many ethanol proponents say that ethanol fuel will decrease CO2 emissions, however there is reason to doubt that claim. In an article by Cars.Com called E85 – Will it Save you Money [11], they reported:

“A flex-fuel car burning E85 has different levels of tailpipe pollutants, but it’s not dramatically better overall than gasoline exhaust. Separate from true pollution emissions, E85’s output of carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas — is again comparable to that of gasoline, at the car’s tailpipe. The theoretical benefit is that the carbon in ethanol comes from corn plants, which, in a sense, recycle the carbon. In comparison, petroleum is carbon that was trapped underground for millions of years before being released into the ecosystem. The National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition says E85 reduces CO2 by about 36 – 42 [12] percent versus gas. Still, scientists point out that petroleum is used to plant, fertilize, harvest, process and transport E85.”

The only ones claiming that E85 reduces CO2 by about 36-42 percent are ethanol groups like the Renewable Fuels Association (a trade organization funded by Arthur Daniels Midland). Other independent studies are estimating the savings to be only 11-14%.

Environmentalists should be extremely concerned about E85. In a 2006 independent study from the University of Minnesota published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, their researchers concluded that the total life-cycle emissions of five major air pollutants are higher with E85 than with gasoline per unit of energy released on combustion. When Southern California started using increased ethanol blends in their cars, the ozone level shot up and exceeded acceptable levels. [13]

Most environmentalists are well aware of the damage oil and natural gas drilling does to our fragile ecosystems. Unfortunately, what they haven’t woken up to yet is that ethanol production is highly dependent on natural gas for fertilizers and power generation for the refineries. However, we are now facing a natural gas crisis [14] [15] and drilling is increasing in environmentally sensitive regions in the Gulf of Mexico [16] and Alaska. [17] The Bush Administration plans on weakening air pollution standards [18] so they can power biorefineries with coal, which has already started [19] and will only add to our global warming woes.

So while many environmental groups are in favor of both corn-ethanol and land conservation, they are opposed to pesticide contamination, expanded drilling, water and air pollution and are very concerned about global warming. But there seems to be a complete disconnect when it comes to ethanol production.

Increasing corn-ethanol gives you MORE pesticide contamination, MORE drilling for gas, MORE air pollution from E85 & refineries, MORE greenhouse gasses as they move to coal to power refineries, MORE demand on our water system, MORE water and air pollution, MORE soil erosion, and LESS land protected in the Conservation Reserve Program.

The American taxpayers are currently subsidizing ethanol at the rate of $.51 a gallon. Congress needs to eliminate these subsidies. But there is enormous pressure being exerted on Congress by the big agribusinesses, agribusiness trade organizations [20] and corn-state politicians. Political gain and agribusiness profits are behind this horrific assault on our environment.

The entire problem is exacerbated by bad information coming from government agencies for at least the past six years (in some cases longer) and many environmental organizations are incorporating it into their policies and strategies. Misinformation about global warming [21], and corn-based ethanol are both good examples. In fact, bad science from the Bush Administration has become so serious that the Union of Concerned Science launched a campaign to fight it. [22]

Why is the Bush Administration promoting this ethanol surge? Perhaps because the Republican pollster Frank Luntz discovered that American’s responded favorably to the word “ethanol”. The truth is that corn-based ethanol is not a solution to our dependence on oil. In a recently released independent report for the Director of Defense Research & Engineering called Reducing DoD Fossil Fuel Dependence [23], a number of prominent scientists came to the same conclusion as Dr Patzek at U of C Berkeley [24]:

“The low energy conversion efficiency coupled with the energy intensive-process to produce corn ethanol, results in an overall process that yields no significant net energy benefit from corn-derived ethanol . . . ”

Essentially, it takes as much energy to make it as it produces. The DoD report also pointed out that there are no proven economically viable ways of producing cellulosic ethanol and no one can say when and if this will occur and what environmental impact such a process might have. Bush Administration minions are claiming that cellulosic ethanol will be ready by 2012. [25] One
thing is certain however, in 2012 neither Bush nor Energy Secretary Bodman will still be in Washington. To devastate the environment to produce corn-ethanol as a step on the way to cellulosic ethanol simply cannot be justified and makes the words of Nicholas Hollis truer today than they were in 2003.


If environmentalists want to tout energy solutions for global warming, they need to add their support to enhancing public transportation, the re-establishment of a national passenger rail system, the restoration of family farms and start promoting SERIOUS CONSERVATION not just increased efficiency.

The 2006 study, High Speed Rail and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the U.S [26] concluded that a
comprehensive high-speed passenger rail system could eliminate up to 29 million automobile trips. And another study, Public Transportation and Petroleum Savings in the U.S.: Reducing Dependence on Oil [27] [28] reported that public transportation usage reduces gas consumption by 1.4 billion gallons each year. If Americans had
more public transportation choices, these gasoline savings would at least double to 2.8 billion gallons each year.


While biofuels may have a role powering farm equipment on a local level, to try to keep our destructive car culture running on them, is counterproductive if we truly care about our environment. Environmental organizations are needed more than ever before to oppose Bush’s ethanol surge and the monumental environmental
devastation it will create and help advocate for other ways to reduce greenhouse gasses such as:

* Promote public transportation with an emphasis on rail
* Encourage ride sharing and telecommuting
* Support the Food From Family Farms Act [29] * Promote increased efficiency in all things (including ideal tire pressure)
* Ask Congress to reduce the speed limit to 55 mph
* Help “wrap the flag” around CONSERVATION

The cleanest, cheapest and most readily available source of “new” energy is conservation and efficiency.

For further reading:

How Sustainable Agriculture Can Address the Environmental and Human Health Harms of Industrial Agriculture
Environmental Health Perspectives
by Leo Horrigan, Robert S. Lawrence, and Polly Walker
Center for a Livable Future, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland, USA link

[1] Full article at
[2] Dept of Energy Samuel Bodman’s speech at the Renewable Fuels Conference, October 2006
[3] Columbus Dispatch article, States struggle to support corn-base ethanol, March 12, 2006
[4] Article from Globe Gazette: Culver Envisions Iowa as and the Energy Capital of the World
[5] Report for the Director of Defense Research & Engineering (DDR&E), called Reducing DoD Fossil Fuel Dependence. A number of prominent scientists are on the list of contributors.
[6] EPA Consumer Factsheet on Atrazine
[7] Green Fuel’s Dirty Secret by Sasha Lilley, June 1st, 2006 at CorpWatch
[8] Hutchinson News article, Is there enough corn to feed biorefineries:
[9] Audubon Society website
[10] Website for Conservation Reserve Program
[11] Full article at Cars.Com
[12] Article, Study: Ethanol Won’t Solve Energy Problems in USA Today refers to recent University of Minnesota study that claims only 12% less “greenhouse” gasses
[13] Ethanol From Corn – Just How Unsustainable is it by Dr Tad Patzek of U.of C. Berkeley
[14] Testimony of Theresa Schmalshof of the National Corn Growers Association before the US House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources
[15] Matthew Simmons, president of the world’s largest energy investment company, powerpoint presentation on pending natural gas crisis
[16] MSN article, Congress Approves Offshore Drilling Bill
[17] MSN article, Bush lifts ban on oil drilling in Alaska fishery
[18] Chicago Tribune article, End Run on Ethanol,0,7537508.story?coll=chi-business-hed
[19] Article in Christian Science Monitor, Carbon Cloud Over Green Fuel, March, 2006
[20] Examples – the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and Arthur Daniels Midland’s Renewable Fuels Association
[21] In an interview with CBS News, July 2006 Jim Hansen who heads NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies “In my more than three decades in the government I’ve never witnessed such restrictions on the ability of scientists to communicate with the public,” says Hansen. But if it is that simple, why do some climate science
reports look like they have been heavily edited at the White House? With science labeled “not sufficiently reliable.” It’s a tone of scientific uncertainty the president set in his first months in office after he pulled out of a global treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
[22] Register’s article about the Union of Concerned Scientists called, Scientists horrified by Bush’s Bad Science
[23] View full report at
[24] Thermodynamics of the Corn-ethanol Biofuel Cycle by Dr. Tad Patzek, U of C Berkeley
[25] Dept of Energy Samuel Bodman’s speech at the Renewable Fuels Conference, October 2006
[26] Prepared jointly by Center for Clean Air Policy and Center for Neighborhood Technology
View full report at
[27] View press release at
[28] Prepared for American Public Transportation Association by ICF International. View full report at
[29] From the National Family Farm Coalition: “A family farm system is the most effective means to provide food quality and safety, diversity of production, equitable social and economic opportunity, and preservation of land, water, and bio-diversity.”