Fill It up With... Deathanol!

Down at my local filling station, there’s a sticker on every fuel pump. It’s prominently displayed, at eye level, because it’s a legally required notice. The sticker states, “Product May Contain up to 10% Ethanol.”

This means what it says, which is that the refiner has mixed ethyl alcohol (“ethanol”) with the gasoline, at a ratio up to 10% by volume. What’s ethanol? It’s alcohol derived from corn. It’s also “deathanol,” in my view. Let’s discuss this.

First, set the stage. Since 2007, U.S. law has required that you fuel your car with a 90-10 mix of petroleum-derived fuel and “renewable” fuel — in this case, ethanol from corn, which, according to myth (see below), grows in the soil.

At the macroeconomic level, that same law of the land has created a major energy policy conflict, with global implications. That is, by mandating ethanol in motor fuel, the U.S. government has deliberately merged the global food supply with the world’s energy supply. Now at the grocery store, you — and others across the world — compete with consumers buying gas down at the filling station.

Ethanol is the worst of both worlds. It directly leads to high food prices while delivering overpriced fuel to your cylinder heads. Meanwhile, it subtracts from national security.

Really Big Numbers

Let’s start with numbers — and I warn you, they’re big. In 2012, U.S. drivers consumed about 133 billion gallons of gasoline, or not quite 3.17 billion barrels. The 10% ethanol requirement translates into about 13.3 billion gallons of grain alcohol, which is about 317 million barrels.

It’s hard to wrap one’s brain around numbers like this (at least it’s hard for me to do it), so let’s illustrate the amount. Start with how much is 3.17 billion barrels, the total amount of gasoline that the U.S. consumed in 2012.

Think of a supertanker, like an ultra-large crude carrier (ULCC). It’s 1,000 feet long, 250 feet wide, with a draft of 40 feet. In dimensions, an ULCC is bigger than an aircraft carrier, although most of the ship’s innards are storage tanks. A typical one of these ULCC beasts hauls about 2 million barrels of product. So for 3.17 billion barrels, consider a fleet of ULCC tankers numbering 1,585 vessels.

Heck, there are only 175 ULCC tankers in the whole world, so 1,585 cargo loads is over eight times the entire global fleet (it’s good that tankers make multiple round trips, throughout the year). If you lined them all up, end to end, 1,585 ULCC tankers would stretch about 300 miles — or all the way around the island of, say, Manhattan 10 times over.

Let’s get back to that 10% ethanol requirement, or 317 million barrels. That’s not quite 160 loads in ULCC vessels. End to end, it’s about 30 miles of ULCC tankers. That’s a lot of hooch.

Hitting the Blend Wall

Now let’s get to the details. In modern America, every gallon of ethanol has its own unique identity. Indeed, every gallon of ethanol has a 38-digit Renewable Identification Number (RIN), administered through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Really… 38 digits. Only in America.

Refiners have to track each gallon of fuel they produce — including the ethanol — via RIN. That is, when refiners mix “renewable” alcohol with old-fashioned gasoline, they have to account for the RIN before shipping fuel out to the gas stations of the country.

The bottom-line idea here is to force refiners to use alcohol and manufacture that 90-10 ethanol mix. Absent sufficient RIN evidence, refiners have to pay a fine to the EPA. So as you might imagine, there’s a market for RIN credits within the refining industry.

That is, refiners buy RIN credits from ethanol producers and use this as proof that they’re complying with the national fuel laws. The good news is that RIN credits have been relatively inexpensive, until recently. The bad news is that RIN prices have recently exploded. From a little over a penny in June 2012, the cost of compliance is up to $1.10 as of the first week of March.

As you can see, the cost of RIN credits is spiking in 2013. This is due to what’s called the “blend wall” within the refining industry. That is, there’s a mandate from the EPA for refiners to use more and more ethanol, which requires RIN for each gallon. But at the same time, overall motor fuel demand is declining across the country.

Recall that in 2011, the U.S. consumed 133 billion gallons of fuel? That’s down from 140 billion three years ago. Yes, the U.S. is actually using less motor fuel as time goes by. You might think that’s a good idea. Let’s peek under the hood on this, though.

Why is the country’s overall fuel demand declining? Several reasons, starting with higher fuel prices at the pump — I’m sure you’ve noticed. Also, there’s improved fuel-efficiency in new cars. Plus, the U.S. population is aging and older people simply drive less. And of course, the lingering recession keeps people and businesses off the road. Voila, less fuel demand.

So we have less fuel demand, which from a policy point of view is a good thing. Yet the EPA still mandates larger and larger amounts of ethanol going into the shrinking volumes of the country’s fuel supply. Hence, RIN credit prices have exploded.

What’s a refiner to do? There’s less and less demand in the marketplace for the fuel that refiners produce. Meanwhile, refiners can’t put more than 10% alcohol into the “real” gasoline, because alcohol will damage all but special-built engines — “E-85” and other engines with seals and gaskets optimized for high percentages of alcohol.

One solution for refiners is to export gasoline and reduce volumes inside the U.S. That legally avoids the RIN issue. These exports show up clearly in the U.S. trade data, and it’s not entirely a bad thing if you care about the country’s balance of payments.

The other solution for refiners is to bite the bullet and pay increasing costs for RIN credits. This all gets passed along to buyers at the pump, and doubtless has added a dime, or more, per gallon to the national fuel bill in the first quarter of 2013 — in the face of stagnant or declining oil prices.

The Corn Ethanol Myth

Why use corn alcohol? It gets back to that myth that corn is, somehow, “renewable” because it grows in the soil. Maybe it used to grow, renewably, in the olden days. Not anymore, however.

Today, it takes much more than mere soil to grow corn. Indeed, if you eliminate modern mechanization, irrigation and agricultural chemicals, you won’t grow too much corn, in soil or anywhere else.

For the first half of the 20th century, U.S. corn yields were stuck between 20–30 bushels per acre. Then came World War II, when the U.S. government sponsored a crash program to build ammonium nitrate plants, the output of which went into explosives for munitions.

What does this mean? Well, ammonium nitrate is a form of chemical energy. The World War II-era plants took large amounts of energy — natural gas and electricity — and reformed it into a tangible product. During the war, munitions companies packed the ammonium nitrate product into bombs, ammunition and such.

After the war, the need for large amounts of high explosives went away. But the ammonium nitrate plants stayed in business, producing fertilizer for agricultural markets. From 1950–1980, more and more ammonium nitrate went onto the soil of U.S. farms, and corn yields grew dramatically.

In all fairness, the U.S. corn yield increased due to other things, as well. Postwar, U.S. farmers adopted more mechanization, improved irrigation (in places), used better farming techniques, improved seeds and pesticides and more. But there’s no denying that energy-rich ammonium nitrate played a major role in moving the yield curve.

It’s notable that since 1980, U.S. farmers have applied slightly less ammonium nitrate fertilizer, yet corn yields are still improving. This reflects a combination of several things, starting with rising energy costs — and rising fertilizer prices — driving efficiencies in application. Basically, farms use less fertilizer because it costs more (and that’s because energy costs more).

Also, since 1980, technology for efficient fertilizer application has improved, to the point where many modern farmers use global positioning system technology to place precise quantities of fertilizer within inches of where they want it. Couple this with better seed, improved mechanization and better harvesting technology.

The bottom line, though, is that without large amounts of energy input — from mechanization and ammonium nitrate fertilizer — the corn harvest would crash. That is, corn doesn’t just grow in the soil, it grows via applications of energy.

When it comes to the “net energy” of ethanol — how much energy goes in, versus how much you get back out — ethanol is a loser. On its best days, ethanol is a break-even form of energy. When you throw in all the energy it takes to grow corn, harvest it, haul it, process it, ship alcohol, blend it and then haul it some more… ethanol is a net loser. It’s more “deathanol” than an energy supplement.

Fueling Cars With Moonshine

The global population is now over 7 billion, with about 200,000 net new mouths showing up wanting to be fed every day. Across the world, grain consumption is growing by about 40 million tons per year. Meanwhile, the U.S. devotes about 40% of its annual corn crop to alcohol for fuel, and in fact devotes more corn to ethanol than to food and/or cattle feed.

Frankly, it’s bizarre. Imagine if a defense contractor developed a weapon that could ruin the economics of food production and thus threaten millions around the world with hunger. Imagine that this weapon subtracted from the energy base of the enemy, helping keep the other guy’s economy in permanent recession. Taken to extremes, this weapon could prompt social instability, if not revolution.

Would the Pentagon buy such a weapon? Would policymakers and civilian “deciders” determine to employ such a weapon? Would critics label this new weapon a criminal enterprise?

Well, this weapon already exists. Indeed, every fuel pump in America has a little sticker on it bragging about it. It’s the moonshine in your tank. It’s the deathanol at the pump.

Thanks for reading.

Byron King

Original article posted on Daily Resource Hunter

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