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Dale McFeatters column: The Holy Grail of ethanol

WASHINGTON ó This is a lesson for the civics books. Five months ago, ethanol derived from corn was the new miracle green fuel. By using corn to power our cars, we could tell the sheiks to go pound their sand.
It all sounded so simple. It also ignored the basic laws and limitations of economics, geography, chemistry and electoral politics. If we learned anything from the 1970s, we apparently forgot it. Then it was synfuels. Now it’s biofuels, equally expensive and impractical.
The thing about oil is that there’s a lot of it. True, a lot of it is in unfortunate parts of the globe, but we get most of our oil from our neighbors ó in fact, Hillary and Barack should be very careful what they say about NAFTA because Canada is our largest supplier.
And we’re no slouches ourselves. We’re the world’s third largest producer and we could produce a lot more except we have this thing about beaches, including the shore of the Beaufort Sea that only a handful of Americans have ever seen.
Periodically we get distracted by the idea of battery or fuel cell powered cars but these seem to be in that same infinitely receding technological never-never land as the personal helicopters that gee-whiz magazines have been promising us since the 1930s will soon be parked in our driveways.
Oil is distributed through a complex, sophisticated system of refineries, tank farms, pipelines and gas stations. It is a puzzle of human nature that someone could look at this efficient network and think: “Corn.”
But the politicians did and five months ago decreed that we would be using 36 billion gallons of ethanol by 2022. Ethanol would cut our dependence of foreign oil and, in a mystery never really explained, cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Instead, using corn for ethanol takes more energy than it creates, drives up food prices here and worldwide, uses vast amounts of land and water, increases greenhouse emissions, distorts our agricultural priorities and requires protective tariffs that drive up prices and a 51-cent a gallon subsidy that you, the taxpayer, pay. And even if we used our entire corn crop for ethanol it would still make only a token dent in oil consumption.
Other than that, it’s not a bad concept.
Congress, having rushed into this, is having second thoughts. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., was quoted by the Associated Press as saying, “Corn ethanol was presented as almost a Holy Grail solution. But I believe its negatives far outweigh its benefits. We need to revisit this . . . and back away from the food to fuel policy.” Good luck.
Over one fourth of the Senate has petitioned the Environmental Protection Administration to scrap the future mandates for use of ethanol and some lawmakers want to cut the mandate back to where it was in 2005. And some would like to just give up the whole ethanol business as bad job.
But as soon as Congress enacted the subsidy and guaranteed demand it created a powerful lobby of agribiz, farm state lawmakers and their hired special pleaders who will move heaven and earth to hang on to that subsidy. A federal program, once created, is close to eternal.
You will hear about the manifold benefits of ethanol in glossy, high production TV ads on the Sunday morning talk shows. Meanwhile, ethanol backers are preparing a rearguard action. Corn ethanol, said one farm state lawmaker, “is a bridge to cellulosic ethanol.”
Cellulosic ethanol is derived from plant waste ó switchgrass, wood chips, lawn clippings, tree debris, maybe even all that corn stubble we’re left with. The problem is that no one really knows how to do this in any kind of economical way, but if your faith is in cellulosic ethanol, please check your driveway. Maybe your personal helicopter has arrived.
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Dale McFeatters writes for Scripps Howard News Service.

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