Corn Commentary

Deconstructing Walter Williams

For an economics professor, Walter E. Williams should be pretty smart — and he often is. But his recent unprovoked attack on ethanol showed he’s not above taking up a few myths without the usual fact checking. At the risk of repeating negatives, let’s take a look under the hood of his column which you can read here in all its glory.

  • Ethanol “can cause major damage to automobile engines not specifically designed to burn ethanol.” All automotive engines can safely run E10 gasoline, which is 10 percent ethanol, and more and more automakers are producing flex-fuel vehicles that can run E85. And just recently, the state of Minnesota released research that found that many car engines can also run well on E20 gasoline. Automakers are investing a lot of money in promoting ethanol as a greener fuel. See here, here and here for examples.
  • “It takes 450 pounds of corn to produce the ethanol to fill one SUV tank. That’s enough corn to feed one person for a year.” There is no real practical comparison here. We’re talking about two different types of corn, yellow dent field corn versus sweet white corn. And ethanol is most commonly used as an E10 additive, so 450 pounds of corn (8 bushels) would produce enough ethanol to blend into a total of 224 gallons of E10 gasoline. But further, for all its benefits, that amount of sweet white corn (the equivalent of 1.25 pounds a day for one person over the course of one year) simply does not provide the calories or nutrition required for a stand-alone diet.
  • “It takes more than one gallon of fossil fuel — oil and natural gas — to produce one gallon of ethanol.” Actually, most of the research (including that done by the federal Department of Energy) demonstrates ethanol to be energy positive, resulting in more energy that it takes to produce it. Click here for more details.
  • “It takes 1,700 gallons of water to produce one gallon of ethanol.” Williams here is talking about how much water is also required to grow the corn from which ethanol is produced. But he ignores the fact that the bulk of this water is naturally occurring rainfall. Only a small percentage of corn acreage is irrigated. Ethanol production itself requires about three to four gallons of water per gallon of ethanol. Click here for more on this.
  • “Ethanol is so costly that it wouldn’t make it in a free market.” Perhaps it would have a better chance if the oil industry wasn’t spending so much money to perpetuate the myths we keep seeing. In reality, ethanol producers in 2007 helped support more than 230,000 American jobs, put more than $12 billion into the pockets of American consumers, and generated more than $8 billion in tax revenue – far more than any tax credits received. And higher demand for corn has been credited with reducing federal payouts to farmers by up to $12 billion. Details here and here.

You get the picture. Frankly, we’re tired of swatting away the same old myths that keep coming up, and the American public seems to agree with us.