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Study Says Ethanol Inefficient

Farmers, businesses and state officials are investing millions of dollars in ethanol and biofuel plants as renewable energy sources, but a new study says the alternative fuels burn more energy than they produce.

Supporters of ethanol and other biofuels contend they burn cleaner than fossil fuels, reduce U.S. dependence on oil and give farmers another market to sell their produce.

But researchers at Cornell University and the University of California-Berkeley say it takes 29 percent more fossil energy to turn corn into ethanol than the amount of fuel the process produces. For switch grass, a warm weather perennial grass found in the Great Plains and eastern North America United States, it takes 45 percent more energy and for wood, 57 percent.

It takes 27 percent more energy to turn soybeans into biodiesel fuel and more than double the energy produced is needed to do the same to sunflower plants, the study found.

"Ethanol production in the United States does not benefit the nation's energy security, its agriculture, the economy, or the environment," according to the study by Cornell's David Pimentel and Berkeley's Tad Patzek. They conclude the country would be better off investing in solar, wind and hydrogen energy.

The researchers included such factors as the energy used in producing the crop, costs that were not used in other studies that supported ethanol production, said Pimentel.

The study also omitted $3 billion in state and federal government subsidies that go toward ethanol production in the United States each year, payments that mask the true costs, Pimentel said.

Ethanol producers dispute Pimentel and Patzek's findings, saying the data is outdated and doesn't take into account profits that offset costs.

Ethanol is an additive blended with gasoline to reduce auto emissions and increase gas' octane levels. About 3.6 billion gallons of ethanol were produced last year in the United States, according to the Renewable Fuels Association, an ethanol trade group.

The ethanol industry claims that using 8 billion gallons of ethanol a year will allow refiners to use 2 billion fewer barrels of oil. The oil industry disputes that, saying the ethanol mandate would have negligible impact on oil imports.

In other agricultural news, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says Nebraska's farm production expenditures were up 7.3 percent last year, to $9.88 billion dollars.

Expenditures per farm or ranch in Nebraska averaged $204,555 last year, up from $189,897 the year before, the USDA's Nebraska Agricultural Statistics Service said Monday. Nebraska's average expenditures were more than twice the national average.

Livestock expenses accounted for 19 percent of Nebraska's total production expenditure, while feed, which can be grains, soybean or anything to feed livestock, was 15.6 percent. Rent was 12.1 percent and farm services were 9 percent.

Livestock expenses increased 5.6 percent from 2003, to average $38,923 per operation, a rate four times the national average.

The average feed expenditure was $31,884, more than twice the national average. Rent averaged nearly $24,845 and farm services $18,427, both above the national average.

The increase in expenses is largely due to the rise in costs of tractors and self-propelled farm machinery, fuels, fertilizer, feed and labor, the service said.

The country's total farm production expenditures totaled about $210.7 billion in 2004, a 5.1 percent increase from the previous year.