The ag industrialists of the North Country have been high on ethanol fuel for more than a decade, staggeringly intoxicated with the stuff that has brought them much profit from higher grain prices, primarily the corn from which most ethanol is distilled. It’s been quite a party, and like most inebriated carousing it has left behind a mess, a mess that we private property owners and county tax payers have to clean up at our own cost and with our own labor.
The cost of $7 corn
Ethanol fuel production, arguably the biggest boondoggle in the history of federal farm programs and economic policies, has been a total bust for advocates of renewable energy resources but a gold boom for industrial agriculture corporations. At the local level, for those of us who share the land with this monster, it has been hideously costly and environmentally devastating.
Ethanol fuel is nothing more than ethyl alcohol, the same intoxicant that gives Russian vodka and Tennessee moonshine their kick, blended with gasoline refined from crude petroleum, usually about 10 percent ethanol to 90 percent gasoline. The ag industrialists of the North Country have been high on ethanol fuel for more than a decade, staggeringly intoxicated with the stuff that has brought them much profit from higher grain prices, primarily the corn from which most ethanol is distilled. It’s been quite a party, and like most inebriated carousing it has left behind a mess, a mess that we private property owners and county tax payers have to clean up at our own cost and with our own labor.
The ethanol fuel industry is a scam beyond the wildest dreams of any con-man who ever duped the public by selling cloud-castle real estate, Ponzi scheme investments, or junk bonds. To believe that ethanol is profitably produced from a renewable energy resource or that it can be environmentally sound you have to accept a huge (and hugely false) premise: a gallon of ethanol will produce more energy than was consumed in the production of that gallon of ethanol. And if you believe that, I have here in my vest pocket the design for a perpetual motion machine that I will sell you for the bargain price of $1 million. Cash only.
For each BTU (British Thermal Unit) of energy produced by corn-based ethanol about 1.1 BTUs of energy from other sources (natural gas, petroleum, coal, nuclear, wind, solar) is consumed. That is a generous estimate. Some industry analysts say the ratio is 1 to 1.25.
Obviously, if ethanol fuel had to stand on its own financial merits the industry would collapse overnight. You cannot sell for $1 an item that costs $1.10 to produce. So how can the manufacture of ethanol roll on and on? The answer is the generous subsidies and tax breaks that the federal and state governments grant to ethanol production facilities, ethanol fuel, and the corporations that manufacture the stuff, plus the incentives and tax breaks given through the industrial agricultural system. In a nutshell: a whole lot of public money (your tax dollars and mine) is being allocated to private enterprises to shore up their operations and generate a whole lot of profit – for them, not us.
The petroleum industry (although not exactly a shining light itself in the realms of conservation ethic, financial integrity, and political honesty) has had good reason to cry “foul” over the bureaucratic manipulations and political payoffs that use public funds to prop up an ethanol fuel industry that is a sham. For a number of valid financial and operational reasons petroleum producers do not want to blend ethanol with gasoline; they are forced to do it by government regulations. Again, if those coercive mandates were removed the ethanol industry’s house of cards would immediately come tumbling down.
As consumers of ethanol we are also being scammed at the gasoline pump. The ethanol industry itself admits that 1.5 gallons of ethanol are required to produce the same amount of energy as 1 gallon of gasoline. A gallon of 10 percent blend ethanol fuel produces less energy in your motor vehicle’s engine than does a gallon of gasoline, and consequently fuel mileage on an equivalent basis will be less with ethanol blend fuel than with gasoline. If the price for a gallon of gasoline at your local convenience store’s pump is $3 per gallon and ethanol blend fuel is $2.75, you are not saving money by filling your tank with ethanol fuel. You are not buying 60 proof vodka, you are buying 55 proof.
For me, all of this ethanol fuel bamboozle would be more entertainment than aggravation were it not for the direct costs we have to pay for the damage done to our property by the farmland abuses that have resulted from the boom in corn production. Ethanol has led to higher corn prices, $7.28 per bushel in 2013 compared to $2.07 in 2003 (average mid-January price in northeast Iowa as reported by the Iowa Department of Agriculture). Those higher corn prices have led to greatly increased acreage in corn planting, and on our county the increased row crop acres are often on highly erodible soils on steep slopes. Much of this land is rented by farm operators (I will not grant them the respect of calling them farmers) who plow through waterways, bulldoze out terraces, plow and plant to the very edge (and sometimes past the edge) of roadside ditches, take out buffer strips along streams and draws, and engage in other abusive land use practices that allow them to put every square foot of their rented land into corn production. Combine that line of teetering dominoes with severe rainfalls and the resultant chain-reaction is extensive property damage, not only to the farmland itself but to adjacent properties.
Floods of water runoff and accompanying soil erosion are causing millions of dollars of damage to adjoining land, roadside ditches, culverts, bridge abutments, and other private and public structures, and clogging and polluting streams, ponds, and waterways. In our township, one farm owner who bulldozed out the buffer strip along the edge of a steep ravine and another farm operator who plowed out the waterways on hillside land he rented created the perfect conditions for disaster when a torrential storm dumped almost five inches of rain here in June in less than 12 hours.
Two months later we and other neighbors are still repairing the damage. After more than 20 hours of labor in the ravine on the south edge of our farm with chainsaw, pry bars, shovels, buckets, tow ropes and bare hands, we have finally exhumed and opened the 30-inch culvert under our driveway that was blocked by the tree limbs and trunks, brush, crop residue, and soil that came in the tidal wave from steeply sloping fields that were once planted in strips of hay and crops but are now all row cropped. The driveway’s culvert embankment will need a couple thousand dollars of earthwork and rip-rap rock cover to prevent the entire driveway from being blown out by flood water when the next heavy rain arrives.
Since our driveway ties directly into the end of the county road, we met with the county engineer to ask if we needed to meet any specifications for the culvert repairs or have a county road inspector approve the project. Neither was required.
We asked: Do we have any recourse for damage payments from the farm operators whose land abuses caused the flood damage? The answer: farm operators can do pretty much anything on their land, short of taking out terraces our rechanneling watersheds, without any responsibility for the damage it may cause to their neighbors’ property due to water runoff and soil erosion.
“This is the result of $7 corn,” the county engineer said. “We’re dealing with it all over the county.” Culverts, bridges, roads, ditches, streams, waterways, fields, woodlands. Millions of dollars in private and public money spent to repair the damage. Every year.
That’s the local cost of the ethanol scam in the North Country. That’s the cost of $7 corn.
More stories about life in the North Country, hunting, bird dogs, and bird guns are published in my two collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot and Old Coots Never Forget, and my novel, Hunting Birds. All are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com.