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The Surge for Ethanol

Few of us foresaw that the drive for clean-burning fuel alternatives could create serious environmental problems.


Tom Arrandale

Tom Arrandale is a GOVERNING correspondent.

Two decades ago, congested metropolitan regions ordered motorists to run cars and trucks on high-oxygen fuels that included additives such as ethanol. The idea was to curb pollution coming out of auto tailpipes. There was a lot of grumbling from mechanics and motorists about how running on fuel made from corn would lock engines up or cut performance.

You no longer hear that today. Nor do you see gas stations with hand-lettered cardboard signs boasting that their pumps dispense "No Ethanol."

Nowadays, biofuels manufactured from crops and other vegetation are widely accepted as essential to combat global warming and develop substitutes for $4-per-gallon gasoline. Still, that doesn't mean those goals can be accomplished without unintended, maybe even perilous, consequences. As things have turned out, few observers -- this reporter included -- foresaw that the drive for clean-burning fuel alternatives could create serious environmental problems of its own.

After Congress tightened the federal Clean Air Act in 1990, competition broke out between big economic sectors that made additives for making gasoline burn more cleanly. American farmers lobbied governments to mandate "gasohol" fuels that mixed conventional gasoline with 10 percent or more of oxygen-heavy ethanol distilled from corn crops. Oil companies preferred blending in their own cheaper and more convenient product, a chemical compound called methyl tertiary-butyl ether, or MTBE. During the 1990s, ethanol production lagged at 15 percent of the oxyfuel market, despite generous federal and state tax subsidies.

But state and local regulators have learned the hard way that controlling pollution sometimes transfers environmental impacts to different places. MTBE can cause cancer, and by the late 1990s, it was showing up in underground aquifers supplying municipal drinking water. Some 9,000 community wells in 31 states were contaminated by MTBE seeping from underground tanks. Twenty-five states banned it, including California and New York, two of the biggest reformulated fuel markets. After Congress balked at providing legal protection, gasoline distributors began switching to ethanol rather than risk legal liability for polluting drinking water.

MTBE's demise cleared the field for an ethanol boom that Corn Belt states were pushing for. Minnesota, which began offering a 20-cents-per-gallon subsidy for ethanol production plants in the 1980s, now is converting its government fleet to "flex-fuel" engines that are able to run on E-85 blends -- that is, 85 percent of the fuel is ethanol. Biofuel mandates have spread to other farming states, and 2005 federal energy legislation called for producing 15 billion gallons of fuel per year from grains by 2022. Nearly 150 U.S. ethanol plants are now up and running, and more than 50 more are under construction. Around the globe, all major industrialized nations are moving to convert grain crops into fuels that replace high-priced oil and reduce carbon emissions.

It's tempting to declare an environmental and economic win-win. But the harsh reality is that the expansion of biofuel production is diverting grains and other crops from food markets, and that, in turn played a role in the 40 percent jump in worldwide food prices last year. Climbing corn prices saddled the U.S. livestock industry with unexpected costs for fattening cattle, and Texas Governor Rick Perry called for cutting this year's national renewable fuels mandate in half. His request was denied. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer, a former North Dakota governor, says Texas drivers save more by running vehicles on ethanol blends than ranchers pay for higher feed prices.

But governments should pause to consider other fallout from all-out biofuels production, such as the over-cutting of forests, ripping up of grasslands and polluting of lakes and rivers. Unless farmers are careful, chemical pesticides and fertilizers from cornfields will wash all the way down the Mississippi River to expand a marine-life "dead zone" that's already appeared in the Gulf of Mexico. Under pressure for action on fuel prices, governments seldom stand back to take second looks that might spot unwanted and unintended trade-offs.

Perfect foresight is never possible. But taking a comprehensive approach will be all the more vital as governments make tough economic calls to deal with global warming. The governors of 10 Northeastern states set a wise precedent by ordering their top environmental and energy regulators to sit down together to design a regional cap-and-trade system to curb carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. We have no choice but to tackle climate change. But the MTBE fiasco demonstrates that sometimes there can be harm in the way we tackle it. Governments need to think things through so they don't solve one problem by exposing the globe to different kinds of danger.

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