Cellusolic ethanol is made from the non-edible parts of plants, wood, and other sources of biomass. As a biofuel, ethanol is currently being touted as a greener fuel alternative to gasoline. In the 1990s, under revisions to the Clean Air Act, the U.S. began mixing ethanol with gasoline for cleaner automotive emissions. Ethanol is added to gas in order to oxegenate the gasoline mixtrure, allowing the fuel to burn more completely during combustion. Since this results in cleaner emissions, ethanol obviously is beneficial to air quality.
The effect of ethanol on gasoline is only the first question. When first introduced as a major policy initiative under the Bush administration, nascent demand for it actually raised its price to above that of gasoline at the time, which was astounding considering that the biggest reason it was considered was to keep gasoline prices down. The irony is that the scientific community isn’t even sold on added efficiency from ethanol. Some data supports the conclusion that, since ethanol can’t be transported in pipelines with gasoline and has to be transported in trucks (which use gasoline and ethanol), the cost per gallon of ethanol is greater than a gallon of ethanol.
Worse though, ethanol and subsidies to farmers to produce ethanol created an artificial price floor for corn, which raised the world price to a level that made such a basic food stable unaffordable in many parts of the world. We like to think of famine as a third world problem from other hemispheres, but as recently as 2007, this issue had caused riots in Mexico because of the rising price of tortillas.
Thinking about alternative fuels in the context of gasoline and our own energy dependencies is important, but we can’t forget the impact our policies and consumption habits have on the rest of the world.
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