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Wisconsin Interfaith Climate & Energy Campaign (WICEC)
February 27, 2009

Ethanol, Yes!
From Corn, NO!

Position Summary

Position #1 - WICEC OPPOSES conventional ethanol produced exclusively from kernel corn as is being done in most ethanol facilities now operating in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

Position #2 - WICEC SUPPORTS legislation requiring any new ethanol plants permitted in Wisconsin to have the capacity to process all cellulosic products and waste into ethanol to be marketed and used for motor fuel; and that ethanol plants already in operation be required to become ready to process and market ethanol from all cellulosic products within two years. Any subsidies should go to developing this technology and increasing the market for cellulosic grasses and wastes.


We oppose the current practice of making ethanol exclusively from kernel corn because:

• Ethanol releases less energy than a gallon of gasoline or diesel with lower fuel economy than gasoline alone (about 81 percent of the energy content of a gallon of gasoline).

• Corn ethanol now uses about seven percent of our corn crop, diverting good farmland to “growing fuel,” This diversion of food crops increases livestock feed costs and family food prices in our stores, causes higher food prices and food shortages in the USA, and in poorer nations increases malnutrition, hunger, and poverty. As a faith-based campaign, WICEC puts social justice, ending hunger, and improving food security for the poor as our first priority.

• It is estimated that eleven acres are needed to grow enough corn to fuel one vehicle for one year. If this is correct, and if all U.S. cars ran on 100 percent corn-based ethanol, then 97 percent of the entire country's land area -- including real estate now occupied by cities -- would be needed to grow corn.

• Corn crops degrade farm soils. This greatly increases carbon emissions by the use of harmful, CO2 producing, farming practices (use of high carbon fertilizers, use of large machines that require a lot of carbon to make metal and manufacture, and carbon-fueled machinery, etc). These practices contribute to global warming.

• Corn farming generates substantial emissions of nitrous oxide (a greenhouse gas 300 times as potent as carbon dioxide.) (Union of Concerned Scientists)

• More Details >>>

As a renewable fuel, ethanol (ethyl alcohol) has the potential to:
• serve as an octane enhancer and an oxygenate in gasoline to help reduce ozone levels;
• serve as a fuel in internal combustion engines as a blend with regular gasoline;
• reduce dependence on foreign petroleum and reduce the risks of global warming;
• reduce the need of burning fossil fuels --- for instance, ethanol currently supplies half of the fuel needs of Brazilian vehicles; and
• displace 3.7 million barrels per day of crude oil --- a fifth of our forecasted consumption in 2025 (after more efficient use) [According to the U.S. Department of Energy, for every one unit of energy available at the fuel pump, 1.23 units of fossil energy are used to produce gasoline, 0.74 of fossil energy are used to produce corn-based ethanol, and only 0.2 units of fossil energy are used to produce cellulosic ethanol.]

Since scientific studies on the pros and cons of the benefits of ethanol range from a high positive effect on our environment to a very negative effect, WICEC does not take a final position until the actual benefits become clear. We favor further independent scientific studies done by such organizations as the Union of Concerned Scientists, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Rocky Mountain Institute and the U.S. Department of Energy. We have the following concerns and take a tentative position in our advocacy on this policy issue:

Most ethanol produced in the United States today is derived by converting the starches in the kernels of corn to sugars, then fermenting the sugars to produce ethanol.


A. THERMAL GASIFICATION, a superior option, converts biomass into a synthesis gas composed of carbon oxides and hydrogen. The gas is then converted into ethanol via either a biological process using microorganisms or a catalytic reactor. Both of these processes show good potential for increased energy yields and reduced costs by using cellulosic feedstocks --- Rocky Mountain Institute.

B. ENZYMATIC REDUCTION HYDROLOSIS (neutralization) is a process of producing ethanol from biomass that already shows promise in the marketplace --- Rocky Mountain Institute.

C. CELLULOSIC ETHANOL produced from "cellulosic" feedstocks, including biomass wastes, fast-growing and perennial grasses such as switchgrass, and short-rotation woody crops like poplar.

Current Position #1:
WICEC does NOT favor conventional ethanol production from kernel corn for the following reasons:
• a gallon of ethanol releases less energy when burned than a gallon of gasoline or diesel, and produces lower fuel economy than gasoline alone (ethanol has about 81 percent the energy content of a gallon of gasoline);
• competition with food uses of corn --- ethanol production today accounts for about 7 percent of the corn crop --- land used to grow corn for ethanol could be put to better use;
• higher demand for kernel corm will increase livestock feed costs;
• higher feed costs will make other foods more expensive (milk; pork; chickens and cattle; soda pop; breakfast cereals; etc.);
• when food-based fuel is used to replace petroleum, the cost of food in the marketplace becomes linked to the price of oil, prompting farmers to replace the growing of food with the growing of crops for fuel. This leads to higher food prices resulting in more food shortages, malnutrition, and even more world hunger and poverty. This is a very important social justice concern. All religious denominations have a strong concern for ending hunger and improving food security for the poor.
• in 2001, David Pimentel, a professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell University, determined that, in the U.S., an estimated 11 acres are needed to grow enough corn to fuel one vehicle for one year. If Pimentel's analysis is correct, and if all U.S. cars ran on 100 percent corn-based ethanol, then 97 percent of the entire country's land area -- including real estate now occupied by cities -- would be needed to grow corn. (Even if Pimentel is off by a factor of two, we could not produce enough corn-based ethanol to fuel our vehicles);
• Brazil produces ethanol from cane sugar. Corn is not as sweet as sugarcane, which means corn burns off less energy. As a result, Brazil's ethanol has eight times as much energy as any corn-based variety;
• corn crops degrade farm soils over time;
• corn farming generates substantial emissions of nitrous oxide (a heat-trapping gas 300 times as potent as carbon dioxide. (Union of Concerned Scientists)
• without subsidies, conventional ethanol processes are not cost-competitive with long-run gasoline prices;
• last year the federal government sent roughly $8.9 billion in subsidy checks for ethanol production;
• conventional processes of producing ethanol from kernel corn have only marginally positive energy balances (see chart below).

WICEC PREFERS ethanol production from cellulosic biomass for the following reasons:
• cellulosic crops are expected to have big biomass yields (~10–15 dry tons/acre), much less land will be required than conventional methods with kernel corn;
• agricultural residues, such as corn stover, represent a tremendous resource base for biomass ethanol production. At conversion yields of around 60 to 100 gallons per dry ton, the available corn stover inventory in 1998 would have been sufficient to support 7 to 12 billion gallons of ethanol production per year, as compared with approximately 1.4 billion gallons of ethanol production from kernel corn. This conversion can be accomplished at lower capital cost with far better net energy yield;
• cellulosic feedstocks are plentiful: for example, municipal, forestry, papermaking and agricultural wastes can be used to create ethanol, with the positive side-effect of reducing the quantity of waste we must dispose of in landfills. Using waste to produce fuel has the clear benefit of a no cost feedstock. Because energy is generally expended to create the product, not the waste, this type of ethanol has a positive energy balance. These by-products of ethanol production can still be used as agricultural fertilizer and soil mulch;
• cellulosic ethanol requires fewer fossil fuels to grow and yields are far greater than with kernel corn;
• dedicated energy crops can be grown without competing with food crops because they can be grown in marginal areas unsuited for food crop production, or on about 17 million acres of Conservation Reserve Program land that is currently being withheld from agricultural use;
• because crops like switchgrass are perennials, they are not replanted and cultivated every year, avoiding farm-equipment energy. --- if polycultured to imitate the prairies where they grow naturally, they should require no fertilizer, irrigation, or pesticides;
• cellulosic crops like switchgrass are deep-rooted perennials. Growing them actually prevents soil erosion and restores degraded land. For this same reason, cellulosic crops also have significantly lower carbon emissions. Carbon is captured from the atmosphere and becomes part of the deep roots. Only the tops are harvested and the roots turn into rich organic soil as they decompose;
• while corn-based ethanol reduces carbon dioxide emissions by about 20 percent below gasoline, cellulosic ethanol can reduce carbon dioxide emissions 100 percent. It is predicted to be carbon-neutral, or possibly even net-carbon-negative because the cellulosic crops can sequester more carbon dioxide than is required to produce the crops;
• the production and burning of cellulosic ethanol generates 70 to 90 percent less carbon dioxide (the primary contributor to global warming) than corn-based ethanol (as shown in the chart below, it depends upon the blend concentration);

The table below is from Don Hofstrand, co-director AgMRC, Iowa State University Extension - AgDM newsletter article July 2007. It shows ethanol’s lower energy content.



Diesel Fuel

There are fewer Btu’s in a gallon of ethanol than a gallon of gasoline. Ethanol has only two-thirds of the Btu’s in gasoline.

Reduction in Global Warming Emissions

Compared with Gasoline

Corn (kernel)
10 - 20 %

8 - 16 %
- 1%
80 - 90 %
63 - 71 %
5 - 6 %
Taken from: “The Truth about Ethanol”

Article found in Vol. 5 • No. 2 • Fall 2006 Catalyst - The Magazine of the Union of Concerned Scientists

Current Position #2:
WICEC urges that all subsidies to the building of ethanol distillery plants and ethanol infrastructure, or all future construction permits for such plants, require that the entire industry must have the capacity to produce ethanol from all cellulosic sources from the beginning before receiving operational permits! We recommend that all tax-subsidies, if any, should go toward developing or using alternative crops and cellulosic sources (and the marketing of such products) rather than encouraging the use of corn kernels.


Dr. Peter Bakken, State Coordinator
Wisconsin Interfaith Power and Light
750 Windsor Street - Suite # 301
Sun Prairie, WI 53590-2149
PH: (608) 837- 3108
(c/o Wisconsin Council of Churches)
(c) 2010 WIPL. All rights reserved.