Corn Ethanol – Panacea or Pariah?

Published by: Srini Chari

It sounds increasingly as if some current efforts to mitigate climate change may do more harm than good – and do harm to even more than the environment.

Corn ethanol fuel, a highly touted biofuel alternative to gasoline, is easy to manufacture, easy to process and can be made from common materials – including corn and sugar cane. It’s already widely used to power automobiles in Brazil. It’s already a gasoline additive for some U.S.vehicles and has the potential to replace gasoline entirely.

The promise has been reduced dependence on foreign oil, fewer greenhouse gases and a way to support the farm economy.

Now, after about a year of riding high, ethanol has come under serious attack. By increasing demand for corn, it’s pushing up prices for corn, which is a problem for livestock farmers who use it for feed and food companies that produce grain products. As was to have been expected, oil companies don’t like it either. Worse yet, environmentalists are unhappy about the way ethanol demand increases the use of water and fertilizer to grow corn, and the American Lung Association has raised a red flag about air pollution from burning ethanol in gasoline.

Foreign opposition has also emerged – from Mexico, where it’s believed to help cause corn-based tortilla prices to rise; Quebec, where the government concluded the environmental costs were too high, and from China, Malaysia, Cuba and Venezuela.

The U.S.ethanol industry, which plays a key role in President’s Bush’s program to reduce dependence on foreign oil, has some powerful U.S.government protection: Oil refiners get an excise tax credit for every gallon of ethanol they blend into gasoline, and imported ethanol is taxed at 54 cents per gallon. It’s also supported by investors, who’ve enabled construction of more and more new and larger ethanol plants.

Pending legislation would increase the amount of renewable fuels to be blended with gasoline by 2022, about 15 of 36 gallons to be corn ethanol, with the balance other fuels, including celluosic ethanol, still an embryonic industry.

Sounds like it’s time to stop the music. Benefits of ethanol have been challenged, and damaging side effects appear likely. How do we call a time-out with so many vested interests in entrenched positions? How can we get better public understanding of the complex technical issues at stake here? Better yet, how can we get informed discussion of superior alternatives?

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