Monday, June 28, 2010

Local environmental impact of ethanol called into question as industry pushes for more production

Two weeks ago we reported the Environmental Protection Agency had delayed deciding whether to increase the allowable ethanol blend in gasoline to 15 percent, a decision that was widely criticized by the ethanol industry. The industry has launched a public-relations blitz, calling ethanol "America’s clean fuel" and blanketing Washington, D.C., with ads saying "No beaches have been closed due to ethanol spills," but is the fuel as clean as the industry says? "There has been hot debate about whether carbon emissions from ethanol production and use are lower than those from oil and whether the 33 percent of the U.S. corn crop diverted to ethanol drives up the price of food," Erica Gies reports for The New York Times. "Local effects of ethanol production, however, including water pollution and consumption, have received less scrutiny."

The EPA ruling was delayed because the agency said further research was needed into the chances that fuel would corrode conventional car engines at higher percentages. "As ethanol plants have sprouted, mostly in the Midwestern Corn Belt, environmental effects have followed," Gies writes. "An analysis by Perry Beeman, a reporter for the Des Moines Register in Iowa, found 394 violations of environmental regulations by ethanol processing plants in that state between 2001 and 2007." A 2008 study reported that increasing corn production to meet the 2007 renewable fuels target would increase nitrogen pollution in the Gulf of Mexico by 10 to 34 percent.

"There may be a small number of acres coming into production, but they are likely highly environmentally sensitive," Craig Cox, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources for the Environmental Working Group and a former undersecretary for natural resources at the Agriculture Department, told Gies. Investment in corn ethanol "seems like a very expensive detour from an energy policy point of view," said Craig Cox, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources for EWG, told Gies. "This is really agricultural policy masquerading as energy policy." (Read more)

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