What comes after ethanol?

By Bill Kovarik
Roanoke Times, Sept. 4, 2011.

The ethanol industry has attracted many critics over the years. Much of the criticism is well meant and should be well taken. The yardsticks that are usually applied to the industry – carbon footprint, biodiversity, competition between food and fuel, government subsidies, air and water quality – are certainly appropriate, even if they are rarely applied equally to all energy industries.

But the critics tend to miss the most important point about the historical reason for the development of the ethanol industry.  The primary reason for blending ethanol in gasoline is NOT to replace Middle Eastern oil. (That was always a secondary issue.)

The reason that today’s corn ethanol industry has become so large is that the oil industry does not have a safe additive to bring gasoline up to 87 octane.

Back in the 1970s, when the Richmond-based Ethyl Corp.’s leaded gasoline additive was replaced as a grave public health hazard, the oil industry resorted to severe reforming of crude oil to obtain gasoline with minimal octane levels. This gasoline had high levels of benzene and related carcinogens. That’s why your local service station now has signs warning about unleaded gasoline and carcinogenic compounds in gasoline.

In 1990, Congress worked with President George H.W. Bush’s Environmental Protection Agency to amend the Clean Air Act and eliminate benzene and other carcinogens in gasoline. The law mandated two new types of oxygenated octane boosters: These were 1. MTBE, made from petroleum, which they thought would be used mostly on the east and west coasts, and 2. blends of 10 percent ethanol made from corn, which they thought would be used mostly in the heartland and eventually replaced by cellulosic biofuels.

As it turned out, MTBE was a serious water pollutant. Like lead and benzene, it was banned in the late 1990s.

That left corn ethanol, and the industry was not at all ready for prime time. It jumped from a few billion gallons of annual production to more than 14 billion in the space of a few short years. And as it grew, its critics became increasingly vocal. Much of the criticism was fueled by the oil industry, which was dismayed at losing such a large portion of its market.

There’s no space to address all the issues here, but it should be said that ethanol is in fact energy positive (although only marginally so), and does not take food out of the mouths of starving children (since leftover corn is fed to livestock with 90 percent of the original protein value).

In addition, ethanol is well proven to be far cleaner than gasoline in terms of air and water pollution.

However, the long-term pressure on agriculture is a serious issue in terms of world food resources, and supplying the growing demand for energy could very well come at the price of starvation in the developing world, as critics have warned. This is a point in favor of second- and third-generation biofuels, which have long been known as better but more technically difficult.

Unfortunately, the ethanol debate has largely been one-sided. Unwilling to engage its critics and admit its mistakes, the ethanol industry has sheltered behind a high-level public relations campaign focused on Congress. This has left the field of public opinion open to those who have no interest in getting to the bottom of seriously complex scientific and public health issues.

For all its problems, there are major issues with the idea of eliminating ethanol blends in gasoline. Most importantly, what octane booster will replace it? Leaded gasoline, benzene, MTBE or other metallic compounds? Are we ready for yet another public health debacle?

It’s also worth considering the way that alternative energy sources are treated in the U.S. Following a period of enthusiasm, tax credits are enacted, then as problems are encountered, a wave of negative publicity builds. Eventually the tax credits are withdrawn and the alternative energy industry collapses. This has happened with solar, wind, biodiesel and other alternative energy sources except ethanol since, until recently, ethanol was primarily supported by Midwestern Republicans.

Today, some people say that government shouldn’t be in the business of choosing technologies. They say they want an unregulated marketplace. But if that were true, we wouldn’t have military protection for the Persian Gulf, we wouldn’t have an insurance ceiling for the nuclear power industry, and we would still be talking about taking the lead out of gasoline.

We need to remember our history and use a little common sense in our energy policy before taking thoughtless actions we may later come to regret.

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