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Harris: Is expansion of ethanol in fuel wise or even ethical?

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There are at least four good reasons why the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to expand use of ethanol in gasoline is not a good idea. The motivation for allowing gasoline to be supplemented with up to 15% ethanol, or “E15,” even in the summer months, is to lower the price of gasoline to U.S. consumers, who are paying an average of more than $4 for regular (which is usually 10% ethanol already).

The hope is that even more ethanol could lower the price by 10 cents per gallon, or about 2.5%. However, the energy content of ethanol is one third less than gasoline, so increasing the alcohol content from 10% to 15% would lower the energy per gallon compared to undiluted gasoline. Consumers would be paying 2.5% less, but for fuel that has 4% less energy, and would get proportionally fewer miles per gallon. The cost per gallon might be lower, but cost per mile would be higher.

In terms of the environment, the reason that the EPA has not previously allowed E15 sales between June 1 and Sept. 15 is that unburned alcohol can be converted by sunlight, more intense in the summer, into air pollution.

In the longer view, subsidizing the price of gasoline for automobiles encourages consumption, which undermines the supposed goal of decreasing the use of fossil fuels. Although they may be painful, higher prices definitely decrease fuel consumption and encourage the production and purchase of more efficient vehicles, the use of public transportation, car pools, bicycles, and electric cars.

The energy equation for the replacement of fossil fuels by corn-based ethanol has been controversial ever since the Renewable Fuel Standard was instituted in 2005 and expanded in 2007.

A number of studies have questioned whether the energy to grow and harvest corn, transport and ferment it, separate alcohol from water, and incorporate it into gasoline exceeded the energy that ultimately resulted from its combustion in an automobile engine. These studies were controversial because even the net energy gain claimed by proponents was so small that it could easily turn into a deficit of any if several optimistic assumptions in the model did not materialize.

A study published in February by the National Academy of Sciences that included the cost of converting farmland from other uses into ethanol production, and also studied water pollution, concluded that the net impact of corn-based ethanol in gasoline was substantially negative. Since the institution of the Renewable Fuel Standard, the price of corn has increased about 30%, which makes farmers happy, but the price of other crops such as soybeans and wheat increased by 19% and 20% respectively, an inflation pressure on grocery bills.

There is an even more important reason to question our ethanol biofuel policy, and that is related to the current Russia-Ukraine war. Ukraine, the sixth largest producer of wheat before the invasion, in anticipation of a disastrous agricultural year, cut exports to zero in March, and Western powers are attempting to impose sanctions on exports from Russia.

Together, those two countries exported 55 million tons of wheat per year before the war, and they accounted for more than half of the total imported food for many of the world’s poorest countries, including Benin, Somalia, Egypt, Laos, Senegal, Sudan, and Tanzania.

Meanwhile, the United States was converting 100 million tons, a third of its total corn crop, to ethanol. The European Union annually turns 12 million tons of wheat and corn into biofuels, about 7% of its crop.

Given the high likelihood that the war will result in severe food insufficiency in many countries, a policy that converts a food crop into fuel needs to be reexamined.

Hal Harris is emeritus professor of physical chemistry at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and chairman of the Energy and Environment Committee in Creve Coeur.

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