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Ethanol and Bioenergy

Fuel issues


Ethanol and the Environment


Ethanol made from corn has gotten more attention, by far, in Congress and in the media, than any other form of biomass energy. Corn-based ethanol is a favorite of companies that farm corn, biotech companies, pesticide manufacturers and politicians from Midwest states.

Archer Daniels Midland and Monsanto are among the companies that support expanded use of ethanol made from corn. Monsanto, a biotech company and maker of chemical pesticides, has featured ethanol on the homepage of its website.

Wider use of corn-based ethanol would no doubt be an economic boon for some business interests, but its environmental benefits are dubious at best. Because of the amount of petroleum and petroleum-based chemicals typically used to farm corn, environmental advocates are generally not enthusiastic about corn-based ethanol.

Environmental groups, by and large, support the use of fast-growing grasses and trees to make ethanol motor fuel or to generate electricity.Such plants -- often called "energy crops" to distinguish them from "food crops" like corn -- have significant potential to help reduce America's dependence on fossil fuels and to help combat global warming.

Ethanol made from "energy crops" can produce 4-5 times as much energy as is required to grow the crops. By contrast, ethanol made from corn produces only about 1/3 more energy than is required to grow the corn.

The environmental impacts of growing more corn for ethanol -- in terms of soil loss and water pollution from agricultural chemicals -- would be considerable. By contrast, grasses and trees can be harvested several times between plantings, require no chemicals to grow and can actually improve soil.