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Corny Energy Policy

If you missed it, the Wall Street Journal had a terrific editorial over the weekend as to why ethanol is still a bad idea, even in the current "crisis":

U.S. taxpayers today pay twice for ethanol: once in crop subsidies to corn farmers and again in a 51-cent subsidy for every gallon of ethanol. Without such a subsidy, ethanol simply wouldn't be cost competitive with gasoline. Then last year, Congress went further and passed a new ethanol mandate, requiring drivers to use at least 7.5 billion gallons annually by 2012.

The immediate consequence of this new mandate was higher gasoline prices this spring, since the ethanol industry was ill-equipped to meet the new demand. Ethanol must also be carried by truck or rail, rather than through pipelines, and it requires special blending facilities. All this has both raised prices and created gas shortages around the country. But rather than blame their new mandate for the higher prices, the Members of Congress blamed, of course, Big Oil.

Ah, but what about the other alleged virtues of ethanol? One favorite is that every gallon of ethanol will supplant a gallon of gasoline imported from tyrannical Mideast oil regimes. Thus, a la Brazil, ethanol can help the U.S. achieve the miracle of "energy independence."

Sorry. The most widely cited research on this subject comes from Cornell's David Pimental and Berkeley's Ted Patzek. They've found that it takes more than a gallon of fossil fuel to make one gallon of ethanol--29% more. That's because it takes enormous amounts of fossil-fuel energy to grow corn (using fertilizer and irrigation), to transport the crops and then to turn that corn into ethanol. The Saudis ought to love the stuff.

Ethanol might have a place in a Giuliani-style "diversification" of U.S. energy policy. But it still have a long way to go as a technology.