COLUMN: Ethanol is not our cure-all

By Emma Claire Sohn

On my daily runs, I often find myself plodding across the gravel just south of campus amidst an endless array of corn fields. I’ve heard many a student degrade the University’s campus because it is not scenic enough for their tastes, but dusk on the Champaign corn fields rivals the stereotypical sunset any day.

But beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. And thus my romanticized ‘amber waves of grain’ are transformed from America’s breadbasket to yet another big-business political scheme. The Andersons, an Ohio-based agri-business, has recently suggested building an ethanol plant in Champaign. The company is one step closer this week, as the city council voted Tuesday in favor of investigating getting an annexation agreement for the prospective plant site.

There is little argument over what an ethanol plant would do for Champaign financially. Our community will undoubtably face increased traffic flow, creation of new jobs, and further demands on nearby farms, boosting our local economy.

The Bush administration has backed ethanol as an alternative fuel source for some time now. Speaking on our domestic energy policy in June, our leader so eloquently noted, “Ethanol comes from corn – and we’re pretty good about growing corn here in America, we’ve got a lot of good corn growers. Therefore, it makes sense to promote ethanol as an alternative to foreign sources of oil.” True, this kind of logic made sense in second grade, but once your reading level exceeds that of “My Pet Goat” thinking tends to become a bit more critical.

Ethanol is merely a transient solution for a slew of much larger concerns, and not a practical one at that. An individual could survive for a year on the amount of corn it takes to supply a full tank of ethanol to a SUV, according to the BBC. Additionally, while corn is a renewable resource, its growth uses land which could be potentially used to grow other crops in a more sustainable manner as a food source. The energy-intensive manufacture of ethanol unnecessarily uses resources which could be better used under more conservative processes.

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    And while the local benefits accompanying an ethanol plant are enticing, its effects need to be considered on a broader spectrum. In order to meet the plant’s extreme water demands the Mahomet Aquifer would need to be tapped. This brings the potential of water shortages in addition to groundwater infiltration – major concerns as the aquifer provides water to the majority of east-central Illinois.

    In terms of emissions, ethanol is not that different from straight gasoline as a fuel source. According to the October 2006 edition of Consumer Reports, while ethanol does significantly decrease Nitrogen oxide emissions, it also decreases gas mileage, and emissions of other harmful gases like carbon monoxide remain the same between the two. These facts, coupled with the energy wasted during manufacture completely dismantles ethanol’s earth-friendly image.

    The support of ethanol as an additive to gasoline is the Bush administration’s response to the justified liberal critique on their lack of an environmental policy. Ethanol is an ideal venue as it does not require any major changes in the auto industry or to consumer lifestyle. It is supplied in the same manner as regular gasoline and is usable in any car, allowing American auto manufacturers to maintain the same production methods, catering to the public’s increasing demands for giant gas-guzzling automobiles. Because of this adaptive quality, ethanol appears to be a feasible fuel solution from left to right, making it a safe one politically in the upcoming congressional elections. The solution to our energy crisis and foreign oil addiction isn’t sprouting up just south of campus. Illinois’ most important crop, beyond being an international dietary staple, also serves as a convenient cop-out for the Bush administration. If the president were serious about quelling serious environmental concerns, he would put more time and money into researching (and recognizing) the possibility of more sustainable energy solutions.