By Bill Kovarik
The grain ethanol industry has always been controversial.
In the early 21st century, critics point out that the ethanol industry won’t avert climate disaster since it has only a moderately positive net energy balance (or carbon footprint).
Fair enough. This may be true for now, although second generation biofuels actually do hold that promise.
But it’s important to understand the historical context: The corn ethanol industry was not originally created as a way to shift to low-carbon fuels two centuries ago.
The original ethanol industry provided the main ingredient for the lamp fuel industry in the decades before kerosene. This fuel – camphene – was taxed out of existence in the US during the 1860s, but returned with the backing of Henry Ford and Teddy Roosevelt in 1906.
When geologists said oil was running out just after World War I, ethanol was seen as one important answer. When engines needed better fuels in the 1920s, ethanol was seen as superior to tetra-ethyl-lead (“leaded gasoline”) octante boosters. When farmers needed new markets in the 1930s, ethanol was billed as a way to avoid farm relief. And when the Arabs cut off oil supplies to the US in the 1970s, an ethanol industry was built to provide emergency fuel supplies.