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EPA's ethanol decision sparks controversy

October 13, 2010 |  4:57 pm

Iowapump

On the face of it, having a federal agency get behind renewable fuel seems like it should elicit cheers from environmentalists, and from pretty much anyone who is leery of our dependence on foreign oil.

Not quite.

Here's what happened: The EPA issued a partial waiver Wednesday allowing the amount of ethanol in automotive fuel to rise to 15%, from 10%, but for use only in cars no older than the 2007 model year. That was happy news for corn states and the ethanol industry.

The move comes after Congress in 2007 passed an ethanol mandate that would ramp up its use in the nation's fuel supply to 36 billion gallons in 2022.

Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack was enthusisastic Wednesday, as might be expected:

Today's announcement from EPA is an important step toward making America more energy independent and creating much-needed jobs in rural America. The announcement will help get existing ethanol capacity into the market.

Increasing the use of ethanol in automobiles and light trucks not only provides biomass and biofuel producers with additional revenue enhancing opportunities, it will help us reach the Obama administration's goal of increasing renewable fuels usage in the U.S. marketplace to 36 billion gallons by 2022.

But there are many out there who don't see much "green" in ethanol that comes from corn. They note that burning E-15, as the new mix is called, can increase emission of some pollutants. And it can convert land better used for carbon absorption into industrialized agriculture, which consumes fossil fuels.

Among the first to blast EPA was a coalition of agricultural interests, including the American Meat Institute; the Grocery Manufacturers Assn.; the National Council of Chain Restaurants; the National Chicken Council; the American Frozen Food Institute; the American Bakers Assn.; the National Meat Assn. and the National Turkey Federation:

E15 – which would be a 50 percent increase from the currently permitted level of 10 percent ethanol in gasoline – will result in dramatic increases in the portion of the U.S. corn crop used to make fuel rather than food and, when fully implemented, could result in more than 40 percent of the nation’s corn crop being diverted to ethanol production. The corn ethanol industry has received over $30 billion in federal subsidies over the last three decades. 

Kate McMahon, biofuels campaign coordinator at Friends of the Earth, used a broader argument:

“The only thing ‘green’ about ethanol is the color of the cash subsidies handed to it by Congress... Increased blends of ethanol in gasoline could increase emissions of toxic air pollutants, in particular nitrogen dioxide, when burned in engines not built to withstand more ethanol. This danger applies to the vast majority of engines currently in service, from cars to boats to lawnmowers.

Ethanol results in more greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline, according to the EPA’s own scientific analysis, which was included in the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS2) Regulatory Impact Analysis released in February 2010...The production of ethanol also has detrimental effects on human and environmental health.

The production of biofuels feed stocks, like corn for ethanol, takes land away from food production and encroaches on natural ecosystems. Large-scale agricultural production of corn for ethanol often involves massive inputs of fertilizer, requires large quantities of water, contributes to soil erosion, and produces deadly run-off of pollution into freshwater sources — as illustrated by the Gulf of Mexico’s “Dead Zone.”

Brazil, which has harnessed its alt-fuel plans to sugar, noted wryly that perhaps this decision will spell the end to extensive federal subsidy of the corn-ethanol industry -- at the expense of Brazil's sugar-based alternative. The Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Assn. had this to say:

The attention now shifts to the U.S. Congress where lawmakers are debating what to do with the 30-year-old ethanol tax credit and import tariff that cost $6 billion annually. Allowing these subsidies to expire as scheduled at the end of the year will help lower gas prices, save taxpayers money and provide Americans with greater access to advanced renewable fuels like sugarcane ethanol.

As we indicated in our comments during the agency’s rulemaking, Brazil has decades of successful experience blending ethanol with gasoline at 25% concentrations. Brazilian ethanol is primarily sugarcane ethanol – a renewable fuel that is typically less expensive and cuts greenhouse gases much more sharply than other ethanol options. Allowing other alternative fuels like sugarcane ethanol to compete fairly in the U.S. would save American consumers money at the pump, cut dependence on Middle East oil and improve the environment.

EPA's waiver will require retailers to warn that E-15 is for use only in model year 2007 and newer cars. It is proposing a rule, subject to public comment and hearings, that would require uniform labeling on pumps:

E15Label 5

California has already passed a comprehensive fuel standard for decreasing the carbon footprint of fuels, and it did not make friends in the corn-ethanol industry. That's because the California Air Resources Board used a formula that accounts for the full life-cycle of fuels, from their extraction (or cultivation, in the case of biofuels) to their combustion. Included in the calculation is the indirect effect of replacing cropland used for energy, which provoked the ire of the corn-ethanol industry.

-- Geoff Mohan

Photo: Corn-based ethanol is a mainstay in Iowa, as noted on this pump. Credit: Ken Bensinger/Los Angeles Times

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