Ethanol: Burn It or Drink It?

The New York Times editorial page went after corn from ethanol last month. It landed some well placed punches. Corn for fuel means less corn for animal feed and human food products. Lopsided US tax policies (incentives for US farmers, tariffs for Brazilian farmers) are blamed for getting us into this situation. The result: higher prices all around, distorted world markets, and minimal overall environmental benefit. This is important because ethanol production is on the increase in Europe and Asia and it is already a major factor in Brazil.

My view is a bit more moderate. I think it is good to have vehicles on the road than can use large amounts of ethanol - up to the 85 percent ethanol blend in E85. (Most cars can already tolerate up to 10 percent ethanol in gasoline.) Why? Let's just say "In case of an emergency." Remember we have ~240 million vehicles in this country and less than 10 million can use E85. Another reason: As long as the ethanol-capable vehicles are out there, investors in ethanol-not-from-corn will keep pushing to bring down production costs and make their product available.

What it comes down to, I fear, is the idea that we still expect to have more energy - more fuel - for our vehicles each year. That doesn't lower greenhouse gases. So far, green efforts have only lowered the rate of increase of greenhouse gases. While the rest of the world is clamoring to get their first and only car and want to use it, most Americans have two or three vehicles on the driveway. Can we use them less?

Whether it is by hybrids or public transit or EVs or biodiesel or ethanol, the sad fact is that we are supposed to burn less fuel if we want to slow global warming, pollution problems and traffic congestion. We have to go on an energy diet. As for ethanol, I would use some for a hybrid vehicle, and then drink the rest. In moderation, of course.

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