Washington Ethanol, a clear, colorless liquid compound, is a member of the alcohol family and has been produced since ancient times. Today, it can be used as a stand-alone automotive fuel or it can be mixed with gasoline. The mixture allows for cleaner burning in car engines, which results in fewer emissions. Because it comes from corn, ethanol is also a renewable resource. So why is it controversial? It is more expensive to produce, detractors say, than gasoline and is not as clean as is claimed. Here are the facts:
The wholesale price for a gallon of ethanol is $1.03. The wholesale price for a gallon of gasoline is $0.46. The government's Alcohol Fuel Tax Incentive of $0.54 per gallon, however, reduces ethanol's price to $0.49 per gallon, making it affordable. The GAO found in 1997 that these federal subsidies cost the Treasury more than $7 billion since 1979.
Even so, there are 45 firms operating 58 ethanol plants located in 19 states. The Archer Daniels Midland Corp. has the largest facilities (the company currently controls 50 percent of the total production of ethanol in the United States and donates millions of dollars to political campaigns). More plants are being constructed and many more are proposed. Opponents of using ethanol as an additive or gas alternative complain that it is controlled mainly by the Archer Daniels Midland Corp.
Approximately 535 million bushels of corn were consumed by the ethanol industry in 1994. In the United States, more than 15 billion gallons of ethanol-blended gasoline is used each year. Many ethanol proponents point to the fact that the use of ethanol offers economic benefits, creating jobs and money. The ethanol industry also benefits farmers, because the product comes from corn.
Meanwhile, the wholesale price for reformulated gasoline blended with ethanol and regular gasoline has fallen in Chicago and Milwaukee. In fact, the price of ethanol is at an all-time low due to increased production.
Further, ethanol helps to reduce air pollution and improves car performance because of its clean-burning quality. Air quality is improved because it reduces the emission of such harmful elements as carbon monoxide, ozone precursors and air toxics. Moreover, the chemical produces more energy than goes into its production. This is due partly to the fact that ethanol production has become much more advanced and efficient.
However, the National Research Council's report, "Ozone-Forming Potential of Reformulated Gasoline," released in May 1999 found only a "small" air quality benefit associated with the use of ethanol. It stated that "the addition of oxygen to fuel in the form of commonly available oxygenates had little impact on improving ozone air quality. Data suggest that oxygen causes a small reduction in the mass of VOC (volatile organic compound) and CO exhaust emissions." Ethanol came under renewed consideration recently after studies done in March found that the other fuel additive, Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether (MTBE), contaminated water in some parts of the country.
The idea of a renewable fuel that burns at least somewhat cleaner than gasoline should outweigh cost considerations. Besides, a significant factor in those costs is transportation of ethanol to refineries in distant states. The solution? An ethanol pipeline.