By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

The EPA’s decision to increase the allowable percentage of ethanol in gasoline to 15 percent has ignited a fiery debate among America’s mega-industrial interests. Watching the Titans queue up on their respective sides of this issue has been almost embarrassing; there are so many nakedly exposed  agendas and strange alliances.

What’s not so amusing are the serious environmental consequences of both the production and combustion of ethanol.  But first let’s sort out the teammates.

Corn Glee

Corn: Food or fuel?

The corn lobby is naturally quite pleased with this EPA decision. More ethanol means more demand for corn, and better prices and more jobs. For corn growers and ethanol refiners, it’s all good.

For meat producers, not so much. Today, Tyson Foods Inc. came out with a vehement push back, arguing that the government’s promotion of corn for fuel will raise corn feed prices, and therefore the cost of meat for consumers. It’s an argument echoed by the poultry and beef industries, and it makes sound economic sense. No one wants higher prices for beleaguered consumers. Still, we can’t help but grin a bit over this one, given that Tyson has ridden corn subsidies into the sunset for many years now, relying on government-supported corn to underwrite a brutal, industrial machine that churns out meat with little regard for animal life or worker welfare.

The National Pork Producer’s Council also expressed dismay over the decision, invoking the fear that the resulting higher prices for corn feed would drive family farms out of business. If the Pork Producers had been more concerned about that a few decades ago, there might actually be some family farms left to worry about. (See the EDF’s report on hog factories or even the USDA for more info on how the industry has rapidly gobbled independent hog farmers, consolidating them into “contractor” operations controlled by corporate producers. )

Which brings us to the next lobbying group upset about this decision, another organization that tends to fret about the little guy: The National Petrochemical and Refiners Association.

“The Environmental Protection Agency today abdicated its responsibility to safeguard our nation’s public health and environment and became the Ethanol Promotion Agency,” said Gregory Scott, executive vice president and general counsel of the NPRA, in a statement.

“EPA’s unwise and premature decision to allow the sale of gasoline with higher levels of ethanol may be good politics in Corn Belt states on the eve of the midterm elections, but it is bad news for every American who owns a car, truck, motorcycle, boat, snowmobile, lawnmower, chainsaw or anything else powered by gasoline.”

What Scott is talking about – aside from the political gaming – are unanswered questions on the table about ethanol’s reliability and whether it exacerbates wear and tear on cars because it burns hotter than plain gasoline.

The EPA says its studies have found that ethanol is safe for cars and that supports its step to expand the use of “homegrown fuels.”

The National Petrochemical and Refiners Association says that’s not so.

“EPA is asking the American people to pump first and ask questions later, and to become guinea pigs in a giant science experiment that involves their vehicles, their gasoline-powered equipment, and their safety. Instead of rushing to judgment to announce this decision today, EPA should have required the completion of thorough and objective scientific testing of increased ethanol in gasoline to protect millions of Americans,” Scott said.

Gee, petrochemical people, thanks for caring. And for finally getting in bed with our nation’s environmentalists! Hurrah!

Follow the Science

But enough about meat and oil. Let’s talk about the environment. The prospect of the U.S. cranking up ethanol production has so worried environmentalists and public health officials that they formed a coalition to oppose the EPA’s anticipated new biofuel blend limits. This group, FollowtheScience, marshaled an unusual collection of partners. Members include the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Environmental Working Group (EWG), American Meat Institute, The Hispanic Institute, the Snack Food Association, etc.

The enviros within this coalition are greatly concerned that increasing ethanol will push corn growers to cut down more forests and increase pesticide and fertilizer use, which leads to dead zones in rivers and oceans.

They point to recent studies that have largely discredited ethanol as a “green fuel” and which show that converting grasslands and forests to cropland increases carbon pollution, and diminishes biodiversity.

Environmental groups also fear that emissions, from cars running on 15 percent ethanol (up from 10 percent previously allowed), will add to greenhouse emissions directly, and increase ozone problems in cities.

It gets worse. Drivers using E15 may even get fewer miles per gallon than they would with gasoline or E10 blends.

The coalition of groups supporting more ethanol in fuel disagrees with all of this. And they have  wielded a big stick in this fall of the 2010 midterm elections: job creation. Increasing the use of corn ethanol, will create “thousands of jobs,” they say.

In a statement earlier in the week, the National Corn Growers Association reminded people how their bread is buttered (with corn, of course):

“America’s ethanol industry has been an undeniable success, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs and reducing our nation’s reliance on foreign oil. These groups that have repeatedly attacked ethanol without validation would leave America with just one course of action: increasing our addiction to foreign oil.”

That last part is not exactly true, given the surge in the growth of electric cars, which pair up so nicely with wind power. So technically, transportation is no longer just an oil or biofuel proposition. There are other options rolling out.

But for now, let’s just concede that the jobs argument is a good one. There will be ethanol jobs. We don’t know exactly how many or whether small farmers will get a lot of the action. But there will be jobs.

We can also promise that there will be continuing debate about whether corn ethanol is helpful or harmful.

Will ramping up this questionable industry help out some politicians fighting for their seats in the Cornbelt? It will most certainly give them a shiny new coin to wave in front of voters.

On that point, our BFF’s in the oil industry have got it nailed.

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