Cargirl: Ethanol Isn’t Saving Any Planet, Especially Ours

February 18, 2008
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European countries, Australia and parts of Canada are cracking down on subsidies for biofuels that cannot document their sustainability. Two thumbs up. You go.

The rest of the world, including the U.S., is behind the curve in realizing that some biofuels--particularly ethanol--aren’t anywhere near efficient.

The posturing and opining on whether or not our planet faces ultimate destruction from our indelicate treatment of resources goes on and will undoubtedly continue until we either suffocate ourselves or we don’t. It’s the other posturing that is deeply offensive: Those who don the E85 corn ethanol mantle as environmental.

As it stands now, E85 is not saving the planet.

Right now, we can justify using ethanol to lessen our dependence on foreign oil. But in the U.S., in China and other countries, producing ethanol is hardly environmental.

The fact is, ethanol producers in America don’t have to prove that they have a product that is sustainable.

Ethanol benefits auto companies because they get CAFE credits for producing flex-fuel vehicles. Whether or not anyone ever puts ethanol in those flex-fuel vehicles is completely beside the point. GM boasts about the number of E85 vehicles they have on the road, and they get CAFE credits for every one of those vehicles. That means the fleet fuel average doesn’t really have to be what the government says it has to be. It’s a big loophole for auto companies and so much more about hot air than CO2.

Plus, anyone who goes looking for E85 is going to be driving for a long time. Out of 170,000 pumps in the U.S., only 1,400 sell E85.

Flex-fuel vehicles powered by ethanol will need more frequent fill-ups too, since the energy content of ethanol is less than the energy content of gasoline; in other words you won’t go as far on a tank of E85 as you would on a tank of gasoline and you’ll pay more tax at the moment because you are buying more fuel and state tax is the same for gasoline and E85. Potentially, states will lower the tax on E85 but it hasn’t happened yet.

Second-generation ethanol known as cellulosic ethanol, made from biomass such as switch grass, prairie grass, wood waste and substances other than food is being developed. KL Process Design Group (KL) of Rapid City, S.D., will supply the American Le Mans Series with cellulosic E85 racing ethanol for the 2008 season. The fuel, produced from waste wood, will be used for the first time during the season opener--the 56th Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring on March 15. Corvette Racing will be the first team to use the cellulosic-based flex-fuel ethanol in competition.

But, there’s no telling at this point how long cellulosic ethanol will take to get to market. In the meantime the whole issue of sustainability has yet to be addressed here in America. Perhaps we’ll be shamed into it, especially now with Europe taking a leading role in making demands on suppliers.

Europe, Australia and parts of Canada will now make anyone who receives subsidies prove that their biofuel has been produced in a sustainable manner, meaning that the refinery wasn’t fired by coal or other polluting, CO2-producing fuel, and that the land the biofuel was produced on wasn’t land cleared of forest to plant crops and that farmers didn’t overfertilize to produce the base materials.

Today ethanol refineries are not monitored for the type of fuel they use to produce the ethanol. Using coal to produce a substance that is supposed to lower CO2 does exactly what for the environment? Once it is produced, it has to be transported by rail or truck to pumps.

So what is ethanol really doing? Mostly, right now, it gives farmers subsidies to produce corn and auto companies CAFE credits to lower their fleet average, businesses involved in alternative fuels grants, incentives and tax benefits. It doesn’t really help the environment at all.

Participants at the Bibendum in Shanghai last November made it pretty clear that producing ethanol from corn is on its way out as second-generation ethanol made from plant waste is developed. But my guess is that we’ll hang onto corn in America as long as we can, so that those who benefit can continue to benefit and to hell with the environment.

Remember that when you see a green come-on in the form of yellow corn.--Kate McLeod

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