In search of a moral solution to our energy problem

This is an archived article that was published on in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

There should be a cool place in hell for those who burn nutritious food to push around a sports utility vehicle. And a warmer place for politicians who treat our energy crisis as an economic or geo-political problem. Energy policy, with its resulting climate change, is a moral issue.

President Bush, speaking on the state of the union, hinted at morality when he said we have to cure our addiction to oil. Congress cheered when he mentioned ethanol. Those from corn-raising states almost broke their arms applauding.

Then the price of tortillas increased. Futures prices for corn fuel stock drove up food costs for millions of people. Supplies of corn for distribution to famine areas such as Darfur became raw material for alcohol production.

Producing ethanol from grain is marginal when tested either by economics or efficiency of energy conversion. Gasoline prices need to be around $3 a gallon for an ethanol factory to be profitable. Gasoline prices higher than Americans are used to paying must be maintained or huge subsidies provided if ethanol becomes a major fuel.

Estimating net energy balance of converting grain to ethanol is even more bewildering. Most studies show that when all energy costs are considered (fuel, fertilizer, pesticides, transportation, etc.) there is a net energy loss. In other words, it takes more energy input to produce a gallon of ethanol than the energy in the fuel.

Recent studies, assuming high corn yields of over 120 bushels per acre produced with minimum tillage and low fertilization rates show a positive gain. A summary of the topic ( is available in lay language.

Grain alcohol production is so marginal that advocating it for fuel is extremely risky. Ethanol from non-grain sources has a higher potential. Brazil's success with ethanol has attracted worldwide attention. Most of their production comes from sugar cane grown in a tropical environment. Long growing seasons, tropical rainfall and highly efficient plants make alcohol production feasible.

Politicians can muddle things. Decades ago the world record for photosynthetic conversion of sunlight to stored energy was set with sugar cane in the Northern Territory of Australia. Later, in the 1990s, Australia had huge wheat surpluses. Parliament subsidized ethanol for fuel, mandating wheat as the sole source material. Drought hit wheat producing areas late last century.

By 2002 ethanol plants were importing wheat with huge economic subsidies and energy losses. That same year sugar cane was plowed under in Queensland for lack of markets.

Ethanol from cellulose, using everything from grass trimmings to pond scum to household waste, is possible. Technology has not fully developed in that area. Research and development grants might lead to a feasible bridge energy supply to give us time to develop reasonable alternatives to fossil fuels. But, additional research and subsidies to known energy sources - geothermal, wind, low-head hydopower, etc. - appear superior to ethanol.

Human suffering related to fossil fuels has not been accurately calculated. Deaths from mining, drilling and processing fuels are among the highest of all industries. Casualties of wars and famines related to oil are staggering. Present and future deaths from fossil fuel-related pollution and climate change loom in nightmarish numbers. Yet, the morality of energy policy is largely ignored.

A moral solution will require major changes, like replacing the internal combustion engine with fusion or something we have not yet imagined. We marshaled our intellectual resources to do impossible tasks like putting a man on the moon and developing an atomic bomb. Another impossible task awaits, unleashing American ingenuity to develop a moral energy system.

Let's leave ethanol to the corn liquor artisans who have been making good whiskey since before the American Revolution. It's time to focus on the immorality of fossil fuel use.


* THAD BOX is a former dean of the College of Natural Resources at Utah State University.