President Joins the Debate Surrounding Ethanol

President Bush, delivering his State of the Union address for the first time to a Democratic Congress, preached energy reform, proposing that the country reduce its gasoline consumption 20 percent in 10 years.

How to do that? There's no one way, says the White House, but a major weapon is ethanol -- long promoted by Midwestern members of Congress, long derided by opponents on the left and right.

"It is in our vital interest to diversify America's energy supply," said the president, "and the way forward is through technology." 

Ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, is a fuel derived from plants such as corn, sugar cane and wood. Its makers say it is already blended into 46 percent of the nation's gasoline.

Almost Tenfold Increase

The White House proposes that production of ethanol and other alternative fuels be raised to 35 billion gallons by 2017. Last year, 4.9 billion gallons of ethanol were produced.

But is a jump in ethanol production practical or desirable? Many different groups have their doubts.

"The United States desperately needs a liquid fuel replacement for oil in the near future," writes David Pimentel of Cornell University in a press statement. "But producing ethanol or biodiesel from plant biomass is going down the wrong road, because you use more energy to produce these fuels than you get out from the combustion of these products." Pimentel and Tad Patzek of the University of California at Berkeley published a study in 2005 on the relative merits of ethanol and conventional gasoline.

Environmental groups complain that while increased use of ethanol could be a good thing, it has to be done aggressively to make a difference. Today, most ethanol blends are about 85 percent gasoline -- creating more pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides, and doing little to reduce the output of greenhouse gases, which are blamed as contributors to global climate change.

Environmentalists also complain that the energy used to make ethanol is produced from conventional fossil fuels.

"You do receive energy benefits from producing ethanol," says Liz Marshall, an economist at the World Resources Institute. "But there are other impacts associated with ethanol, which include soil-and-water nutrient run-off into surface waters, soil erosion, and an increase in land use production."

A study done at Argonne National Laboratory for the Department of Energy says the widely used E10 blend -- 10 percent ethanol, 90 percent gasoline -- reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 1 percent. If the country used E85 -- 85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline -- greenhouse gas emissions would go down 14 to 19 percent.

The president also called for cars to use less fuel, though he did not offer specifics. "We need to reform and modernize fuel economy standards for cars the way we did for light trucks – and conserve up to eight and a half billion more gallons of gasoline by 2017," he said in his text.

Dan Becker of the Sierra Club questions the White House's commitment to reducing gasoline consumption. "The key line that I see here is, 'these amounts are based on an assumption -- underlined -- that on average, fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks increase 4 percent per year.' What it doesn't say is, 'I am going to order that we raise the fuel economy standards 4 percent per year.' And he could have done that."

Bang for the Buck

The libertarian Cato Institute, on the other hand, says ethanol has had many years to catch on -- and hasn't. It argues that nobody has yet come up with an alternative fuel that provides as much energy -- in effect, as much bang for the buck -- as gasoline.

"No matter how nice growing our own fuel might be in theory, it's uneconomically expensive, in fact," writes Cato's Jerry Taylor, in a paper titled "For Now, Gasoline Is Our Only Cheap Fuel."

According to Taylor, "even industry participants concede if the subsidies and consumption mandates were removed today, the entire industry would collapse."

Caught in the middle are the ethanol producers, who hope to grow by growing corn as a national fuel.

"It does take fossil fuel to produce corn, power an ethanol plant and then transport the fuel, but at the end of the day, using ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions," says Matt Hartwig of the Renewable Fuels Association, the major lobby group for ethanol producers.

"It is a cleaner burning fuel. It is a good first step towards breaking our addiction to oil," says Hartwig. "Critics need to keep in mind the big picture, which is that what's happening today will be different two and three years down the road. Biofuels will play a major role in any strategy."