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California lawsuit over ethanol rule makes good sense

California's governor dumped a load of corncobs on the Midwest corn growers' yellow brick road when he sued the federal government recently. He has asked the courts to order the Bush administration to waive Clear Air Act oxygen standard for the state in requiring ethanol be added to its gasoline supply.

When President Bush rejected Gov. Gary Davis' waiver request earlier this summer, Midwestern corn farmers began leaping for joy over elephant-eye high corn stalks. It was Christmas in June. Now it's Bah Humbug in September.

Davis filed suit in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco asking the court to order the federal Environmental Protection Agency to let California make clean burning fuel without federal interference.

The state has been ordering refineries to add MTBE to gasoline sold in dirty air areas of the state, but MTBE has seeped into groundwater and the state has banned it, effective 2003. The only alternative to MTBE is ethanol, largely a corn-derived product.

Davis said California presented a “truckload” of scientific evidence to EPA that California can formulate clean burning gasoline without additives like ethanol. EPA ignored it, he claims, largely due to the political pressure from Midwest corn producers.

Davis contends ordering an estimated 660 million gallons of ethanol be added to California gasoline each year puts California at the mercy of outside energy suppliers and would skyrocket the cost of gasoline. That amount represents about a third of the current ethanol production in the U.S.

According to some experts, it will take $1 billion to convert refineries to handle ethanol, adding 3 to 5 cents per gallon of gasoline. Ethanol shortages could send prices up another 50 cents per gallon.

California's current energy crisis is partly due to reliance on out-of-state suppliers of electricity and natural gas. Davis' concerns ring very true.

Of course Midwest ethanol producers contend there will be plenty of ethanol when California needs it. Forty new ethanol plants are proposed or under construction and are expected to boost production from the current 2 billion gallons to 3.5 billion gallons by 2003. Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewal Fuels Association says Davis' legal challenge “will only discourage the very real opportunities for ethanol production in California.”

Sounds good, but ludicrous. To meet California's projected ethanol 2003 needs, grain corn acreage would have to increase from the current 185,000 acres to almost 1.9 million acres.

If corn-fed ethanol plants were built in California, the more likely scenario would be rail lines from here to Des Moines, Iowa clogged with unit trains filled with surplus corn to supply in-state ethanol plants operated by Midwest-based giant corporations.

Davis' lawsuit is logical. It's also curious because he has the support of the environmental activist community and state clean air regulators, who contend ethanol would actually add to the state's air pollution problems.

The Bush administration's refusal to grant the waiver was political. That is supported by the fact political insiders say the Clinton administration was ready to grant the waiver, but was too busy with administration-end business like granting pardons.

Davis' lawsuit is partly political, but it also has science and logic behind it. The federal government is responsible for enforcing clean air standards. If California's state government, refineries and the environmental community say California can produce clean-burning fuel without additives, the Bush administration should allow the state to prove it can rather than playing political football with the economic well-being of 34 million Californians.

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