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Ethanol push is more than a dollar-and-cents issue

For someone who was being hailed as the “answer” for the nation's energy woes just a few months ago, corn growers and ethanol manufacturers have been getting a boatload of negative press recently.

Ethanol and biofuels have always had their naysayers: “Ethanol producers can't compete without subsidies.” “Ethanol requires more energy to produce than it produces.” “Higher corn prices are driving up the price of food items, such as sweet corn.”

The criticism took a nasty turn recently when a United Nations official said manufacturing fuel from food crops was a “crime against humanity” and a “recipe for disaster.” Jean Ziegler, the UN's Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, called for a five-year moratorium on biofuels.

The National Corn Growers Association, biofuel groups in Canada and Europe, the Ethanol Production and Information Council and others fired off letters to the UN, protesting the statements.

I suppose there's a kernel of truth in those, but consider this: When was the last time you read about an ethanol spill fouling the waters of the San Francisco Bay or read about an ethanol refinery being shut down for maintenance and causing prices to jump 10 cents a gallon at the pump?

When was the last time a rise in corn prices was attributable to unrest in the oil fields in Nigeria or to continued attacks on the pipeline for the oil that was supposed to help pay for the war in Iraq?

Ethanol and biodiesel and other renewable fuels have their drawbacks. The National Academy of Sciences has released a report saying corn-based ethanol was exacerbating water quality and quantity issues in the upper Midwest.

Growing more corn for ethanol (14 million additional acres in 2007) requires more nitrogen fertilizer, which, in turn, places more demand on natural gas, a feedstock in the production of ammonia nitrate and on other fuels for transporting it, not to mention the energy needed to plant, spray and harvest the crop.

The 2007 farm bills include funding for research on cellulosic ethanol feedstocks that conceivably would require less nitrogen fertilizer and perhaps use less energy for planting, harvesting and transporting.

A few days ago, the House passed the Energy Independence and Security Act that includes a 36-billion-gallon renewable fuels standard with 15 billion gallons of those set aside for grain-based ethanol. The bill (H.R. 6) requires 9 billion gallons of renewable fuels in 2008 and increases the requirement to 36 billion gallons by 2022.

At press time, the Senate was beginning deliberations on the measure — after another failed cloture vote — but it was unclear whether the upper chamber would be able to complete work on the measure before it adjourned for the year.

Those 36 billion gallons would not replace the country's petroleum-based fuel supply. Far from it. But it could help decrease U.S. reliance on energy from places where the United States is not looked on with great favor these days.

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