Week of 10/06/2005

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that converting crops like corn into ethanol actually uses more energy than is produced?

—Leslie Foster, Eau Claire, WI

Recent revelations by Berkeley researcher Tad Patzek have fueled vigorous debate about the wisdom of using fuels such as ethanol to reduce our reliance on oil and our contribution to global warming. Patzek’s research concluded that producing ethanol actually uses more energy than the resulting fuel can generate.

"Ethanol production using corn grain required 29 percent more fossil energy than the ethanol fuel produced," reported Patzek in the journal Natural Resources Research last winter. He added that ethanol produced from other common sources, such as biomass (wood products and agricultural waste), requires 50 percent or more fossil fuel derived energy than the ethanol that results can produce.

"People tend to think of ethanol and see an endless cycle: Corn is used to produce ethanol, ethanol is burned and gives off carbon dioxide, and corn uses the carbon dioxide as it grows," says Patzek. "But that isn’t the case. Fossil fuel actually drives the whole cycle."

Ethanol is primarily in use today as an octane-boosting fuel additive, but it can also be used as a primary fuel in some engines. Most gasoline sold in North America today contains about five percent ethanol, but some vehicles—such as the Ford Explorer and Chevy Silverado—can run on blends of up to 85 percent ethanol. In order to stimulate production, the U.S. offers generous tax-based subsidies to farmers who grow crops for ethanol.

While Patzek’s evidence may be compelling, his views on ethanol are not popular. Critics point out that his findings are based on farming and production practices that are fast becoming obsolete, and that newer techniques and machinery can make the ethanol production process much more energy efficient.

Hosein Shapouri, an economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, estimates that ethanol fuel can actually generate 67 percent more energy than it takes to produce it. He points out that scientists are experimenting with using alternative sources like solid waste, grass and wood to make the ethanol production process that much more energy efficient.

While the jury may still be out as to whether ethanol production can generate a positive or negative "energy balance," there are also some potential hazards with ethanol production. For instance, the nitrogen fertilizer needed to grow corn and other crops ends up in waterways, causing "algae blooms" that can choke out other life in affected areas. And while ethanol produces fewer carbon monoxide emissions than regular gasoline, it does contribute significantly to low-lying smog.

Doubts about ethanol underscore a fundamental problem in getting many types of renewable energy sources, including hydrogen, into mainstream usage: Until fuel sources like solar or wind power can provide clean ways to make clean fuel, the processes must rely on coal, oil, gas and nuclear energy. Indeed, while we may be able to see a clean energy future, we are still wrangling with how to get there.

CONTACT: U.S. Department of Energy Ethanol Facts, www.eere.energy.gov/biomass/ethanol.html.

Dear EarthTalk: How can I find information on toxic spills and major polluters in another part of the country where I am considering moving?

—Elizabeth Primiano, via e-mail

Passage of the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act in 1986 ensured that the public could access information on "chemical releases," but did not provide a very easy way to filter through data tucked away in vast government databases. But the Internet has now changed all that.

Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides free access to such data via the Envirofacts Data Warehouse on its website. You can just plug in a zip code to locate polluters, hazardous waste sites and other relevant environmental data in a specific region. Envirofacts incorporates the federal Toxic Release Inventory (a database of annual toxic spills and releases), lists hazardous waste sites on the "Superfund" list (those slated for cleanup), and tracks violations of the Clean Water and Clean Air acts.

Another good source for pollution information is Scorecard, a website operated by the non-profit advocacy group, Environmental Defense. The free online service helps users comb through more than 400 authoritative scientific and governmental databases on various forms of pollution to assess local environmental quality. Additionally, the site provides lists of toxic chemical releases and provides links to online references whenever available. Scorecard is regularly updated so that users can be sure they are getting the most current information.

The Right-to-Know Network (RTK NET), an information retrieval service launched in 1989 that predates both Envirofacts and Scorecard, provides access to numerous environmental databases that can help you identify specific factories and their environmental effects, and assess the people and communities impacted. A project of OMB Watch, a government watchdog organization based in Washington, DC, the service migrated to the Internet in the mid-1990s, and its popularity waned as government agencies began to provide data directly to those who wanted it.

While RTK NET still provides up-to-date, zip-code-based information on toxic releases, its founders focus most of their attention these days on advising organizations and professionals who work on environmental, health and safety issues. It recently merged with the Working Group on Community Right-to-Know, a clearinghouse for right-to-know laws and information. The new organization now focuses more on advocacy and seeks to "advance the public’s right to know about environmental and health threats [and] defend against attacks on public access to environmental and health information

CONTACTS: EPA Envirofacts Data Warehouse, www.epa.gov/enviro; Scorecard, www.scorecard.org; The Right-to-Know Network, www.rtknet.org.