Editorial: Rethinking ethanol /
Poor policies back a deserving fuel
July 29, 2001
LINK TO ORIGINAL ARTICLE
New rumblings over ethanol underscore an old conundrum. This potentially ideal substitute for gasoline can't seem to find a market without lots of government support -- and not only subsidies, but some questionable regulatory props.
California says new gasoline formulations burn cleaner than the ethanol-enhanced blends, and cost less besides. Its arguments for relief from federal fuel-additive requirements are persuasive. In rejecting them, the Bush administration offered no convincing environmental justification -- compelling the conclusion that corn-fueled lobbying, not clean-air concerns, drove the decision.
This will swell sales for corn growers and ethanol processors in Minnesota and elsewhere, as would other ethanol-promoting measures being pushed by corn-state members of Congress. But in the long run the industry will pay a price -- growing public cynicism that ethanol technology exists chiefly to transfer cash from motorists to farmers.
Nationally, clean-air advocates are making a cogent case against the federal dual-fuel incentive for vehicles that will burn either gasoline or E85, a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline.
Hardly anybody who owns one of these trucks or minivans actually burns E85, because hardly any service stations sell it. Even in Minnesota, which has about one-third of the nation's 180 outlets, E85 sales are slow -- and maybe they should be. Attentive owners will note that a dual-fuel vehicle is built primarily to burn gasoline, and gets less-than-optimum performance out of ethanol.
Worse, the rule gives automakers an undeserved break on fuel economy standards: By pretending that dual-fuel vehicles are running on E85, they can lower the efficiency of their gas-only models. The result is a significant increase in gasoline consumption -- enough, U.S. Transportation Department calculations suggest, to account for 10 percent of the annual increase in greenhouse-gas emissions attributable to auto exhaust.
Even in Minnesota, an early booster and now the national leader in ethanol production, there are growing complaints over the plants' noisy operations, smelly emissions, water consumption and violations of environmental rules.
None of which is to say that ethanol is an inherently inferior product, or undeserving of taxpayer support. It's a cleaner fuel than gasoline, can be produced sustainably and holds considerable potential to lessen U.S. reliance on imported petroleum. These social benefits entitle the still-young industry to some level of subsidy, especially considering the enormous subsidies that American taxpayers provide to oil companies, which are neither young nor struggling.
But the correct level of subsidy for ethanol, and the appropriate ways to deliver it, are proper topics for open and honest debate. So are ethanol's actual environmental benefits as an additive and gasoline substitute. And so is the shaping of public policies that purport to promote clean-fuel development, but seem chiefly beneficial to corn-state lawmakers, auto manufacturers and big grain companies.