Critics of ethanol say there’s still a big argument against depending on corn-alcohol from crops to replace petroleum from the Middle East — that you burn more energy producing it than you get. Midwestern soil scientist Dan Walters says that might have been true once. Does it take more fossil-fuel energy — coal, gas, electricity — to produce the grain and make the ethanol than we get back, he asks? Walters says there’s no point in creating energy if we’re not offsetting the cost of the petroleum it should replace. Walters added up that cost, totaled every “energy input” used to make the fuel. He even factored in the energy consumed to make a combine, and a center-pivot irrigation system, if they were part of the process that led to ethanol. The amount of energy it took to crush the grain, distill the ethanol, drive it to a distributor, blend it with gas, haul it to the pump — with all that, we’re about thirty percent “ahead of the game.” Walters says we get 130-percent of the energy from ethanol that we used to create it from grain. But the energy balance isn’t the same as the total cost, and Walters says before you count taxes, corn-alcohol costs more than crude. It costs about 65 cents to produce a gallon of gasoline — anything you pay more than that is mainly taxes. The cost of producing a gallon of ethanol from corn is around 70- to 80-cents today. While it’s more expensive to produce a gallon of ethanol than a gallon of gasoline, Walters says the industry is still starting up whereas petroleum refiners have been at it for a century. Subsidies make ethanol competitive for now, and the University of Nebraska researcher says it’s hard to calculate how much money goes to subsidize the petroleum industry, though he says it’s a lot.
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