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When the World Turned Against Ethanol (and Forgot About Energy Security)

A few short months ago, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 was hailed by politicians as a major breakthrough in energy policy and panned by environmentalists who claimed the 36 billion gallon Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) was not enough. Since then, a number of contradictory statements and reports have spread alarm and caused politicians to retract earlier support. Twenty-four Republican senators, including Sen. John McCain, recently asked the EPA to waive or reduce the RFS. The current debate over ethanol has obscured the intent of the RFS: to reduce greenhouse gases, transition away from non-renewable fossil fuels and achieve energy security.

Critics of ethanol have decried it as an inefficient, government-sponsored fuel and the primary cause of rising food prices. Additionally, some scientists recently suggested that stopping production now would reduce corn prices by 20 percent. A recent Texas A&M report concluded, however, that high energy costs are the primary cause for rising food and feed prices. It further concluded that waiving the US RFS standards would not affect corn prices, as the demand and infrastructure for ethanol production already exists. Additionally, a recent Iowa State University study found that current ethanol blending actually saves consumers between 29 and 40 cents per gallon at the pump.

A second issue in the ethanol debate is fuel efficiency and cost. E-85 ethanol, while cheaper at the pump, has lower fuel efficiency than regular gasoline. AAA reported the cost per mile of E-85 is 8 percent higher than gasoline. Proponents argue that technology refinement will eventually increase the fuel efficiency of ethanol.

Additionally, rumors that ethanol actually increases greenhouse gases have yet to die down, despite dismissals from the science community of the Science magazine article which originally asserted the claim. The article asserted that demand for corn from US biofuel producers would drive up land conversion, thereby decreasing the potential for natural sequestration of greenhouse gases, in other parts of the world. Most research from academics, non-governmental organizations and federal labs have found that biofuels, including corn ethanol, provide a net positive and beneficial impact to the climate. Leading scientists have questioned the methodology of article, citing increased U.S. corn yields of up to 30 percent since 1997 and 371 percent since 1944 not included in the authors’ analysis, as well as no reduction in corn exports despite increased ethanol production.

The current debate about ethanol is rife with false rumors and diverts us from the real task at hand: developing a clean, cost-effective and renewable fuel. The truth is ethanol is only a part of the renewable energy portfolio necessary to secure our future. While ethanol is not the perfect alternative fuel, according to Bruce Dale, a leading biofuels expert, the only choices we have now are “ethanol, made at this time from grain, or gasoline.” Commercial availability of cellulosic ethanol, which can be made from non-food sources such as wood chips, could render the debate moot, but it is still a few years away.