WASHINGTON – As Americans, we’ve grown cozy with the notion that there’s a quick fix for every problem. Are you overweight? Try stomach stapling. Have some annoying wrinkles? Better get Botox.

And high gasoline prices? Why, ethanol’s the answer, of course.

Ethanol has that rare ability to be everything to everyone. It’ll save America’s farmers, reduce our dependence on Middle Eastern oil and solve our environmental woes– all at no cost to the consumer!

But as the old cliché goes, if something sounds too good to be true– as ethanol does– it usually is.

President Bush has called upon consumers to reduce gasoline consumption by 20 percent over the next 10 years, and he’s counting on ethanol to be a big part of that reduction.

Ethanol certainly carries some promise. It’s a renewable resource, unlike oil. It can be produced right here in the United States, boosting local economies and reducing the need for imported fuel. And it’s more environmentally friendly than gasoline.

But these benefits don’t come cheaply. Over the last year, a gallon of blended ethanol fuel has cost 50 cents to a dollar more than regular gasoline. That means consumers of ethanol fuel pay between $7.50 and $15 more each time they fill up at the pump.

Why the higher cost? Many levels of government– local, state and federal–mandate a certain amount of ethanol for each gallon of fuel. As a result, there’s an artificially high demand for ethanol, which drives up the price.

Unfortunately, those government mandates don’t simply increase the price of ethanol. They also put upward pressure on the prices for ethanol ingredients– which in turn inflates the prices of goods that use the same ingredients. Livestock farmers and food producers now have to pay a premium for corn. We feel the impact as prices for beef and cornflakes go up.

Also, the benefits of ethanol are frequently exaggerated.

Cars usually get 30 percent fewer miles per gallon with an ethanol blend than they do with regular gasoline. Burning more fuel, even if it’s slightly cleaner, will have very little, if any, positive effect on the environment. In fact, one prominent Australian study concluded that burning ethanol creates more pollution than burning gasoline.

Proponents of ethanol also tend to ignore the massive amount of energy needed to turn corn into ethanol. A University of Minnesota study, for example, recently found that ethanol yields only 25 percent more energy than what it takes to produce it. And if the energy used to produce ethanol comes from a fossil-fuel power plant, ethanol production could actually exacerbate greenhouse emissions, possibly even more than gasoline.

On top of its intensive energy requirements, ethanol fuels also pose significant threats to the environment. Corn production requires enormous amounts of pesticides and herbicides, both of which have the potential to poison groundwater supplies and wildlife habitats. Is it worth trading one environmental concern– the safety of our water supply– for dubious emissions benefits?

Ethanol has been at the forefront of energy hype for 30 years, with decidedly mixed results. Ethanol still holds significant promise, but it’s hardly a panacea for our energy problems, despite the prevailing rhetoric.

We may have discovered a cure for crows feet. But unfortunately for our policy-makers, ethanol is not Botox for our energy wrinkles.

Michelle D. Bernard is the president of the Independent Women?s Forum.

This article was first published in
The Examiner.