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FORUM: Corn ethanol a beneficial source of energy

FORUM: Corn ethanol a beneficial source of energy


Let's start with this fact: producing energy consumes natural resources and introduces risk to humans and the environment. This fact is an inescapable law of science, regardless of the energy type.

My experience has compelled me to respond to an Associated Press article published on Nov. 12 in the Rapid City Journal along with subsequent articles downplaying the positive effects of corn ethanol production. Every form of energy production has risks. Beware of stories that isolate a single energy source like ethanol.

Throughout my career, I have come to understand that there is no perfect form of energy produced for human consumption. Converting natural resources to usable forms of energy, whether it is crude oil to gasoline, wind to electrical power, or biomass to biofuels will have some effect on the environment. We cannot avoid this fact.

Throughout South Dakota, we are paying 20 to 30 cents per gallon less at the pump for a higher octane, mid-grade ethanol blend. Why? Ethanol is cheaper than gasoline, but not because of federal government subsidies. This much-criticized incentive (a tax credit provided for the last 30 years to gasoline blenders and distributors and not ethanol plants or corn growers) expired on Dec. 31, 2011, with no fanfare and with full support of the ethanol industry. In comparison, the federal government gave three times more money to Egypt over the same 30-year period.

In addition to producing less expensive automotive fuel, corn ethanol plants also produce high-value purified protein feed for livestock. Approximately one-third of plant revenue comes from the sale of this valuable co-product. An ethanol plant converts only the starch in a kernel of corn to ethanol, and as an added benefit, purifies the corn protein consumed by livestock. In essence, the most food-valuable part of the corn remains in the food chain. Ruminant animals like cattle especially benefit from purified protein, helping to improve weight gain (and milk production for dairy cattle) with less intake because the rumen digests the purified protein more efficiently than ground corn in the diet.

With today's farm commodity prices, farmers are finally receiving fair market value for their production. In South Dakota, why would we be against this? Higher commodity prices mean less need for government assistance.

The Journal recognized the positive effects of higher commodity prices (“State's ag helped battle recession,” Dec. 9) but failed to mention ethanol's contribution.

And what about food prices? Due to a record corn crop this year, corn prices have fallen more than 40 percent in recent months. Have food prices ticked down accordingly? Not even a little bit. Food processing, packaging, marketing, and distribution costs have the most impact on food prices. The commodity cost contributes less than 5 percent to food prices.

Criticizing corn ethanol in isolation is easy to do. Comparative life-cycle studies of energy production are always more meaningful, and when done fairly and objectively, corn ethanol compares better than most.

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