Can Ethanol Replace Gasoline?

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An ethanol pump at a gas station in North Aurora, Ill. Scott Olson/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Scott Olson/Getty Images

Ethanol was virtually a campaign mantra this past fall. Hillary Clinton supported "all kinds of ethanol." Barack Obama said he wanted a national "ethanol infrastructure." Sam Brownback stated it perhaps most definitively: "Anything ethanol — I'm for it."

But when it comes to addressing the problem of rising oil prices, will ethanol make a difference?

No, says geologist Ken Deffeyes. In fact, even though it makes a better-burning fuel, he says it's a net negative as far as cutting gas prices goes.

The reason? Ethanol manufacturers end up competing with the food market for the corn or sugar that's necessary to create ethanol, so it can actually raise prices, says Deffeyes.

Deffeyes also says that despite the fact that it's a good fuel for burning, ethanol is actually quite inefficient when its production is taken into account. "You use almost as much energy producing the corn and the ethanol as you get running the car."

Some ethanol supporters point to Brazil as a country that has had great success with ethanol. Deffeyes counters that Brazil has plentiful farmland and cheap land, labor and farming methods, but that those come with a price: the destruction of large swaths of Amazon forest. But it's not even an option in most other places, he says: "Most places don't have underutilized or unutilized farmland.

"Your best dreams for American ethanol are a drop in the bucket," concludes Deffeyes.

Deffeyes, the son of a pioneering oil engineer, worked in the oil business himself and went on to become a professor of geology at Princeton University. He's the author of Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert's Peak, and he's been joining The Bryant Park Project for a series of discussions about solutions to rising oil prices.



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