Go Ethanol, Go!

Quick, put your hands in the air if you favor preserving the environment! Globally speaking, who won't? Who out there - except the truly ignorant - wishes to trash Mother Earth? Say "Hallelujah!" Now moving beyond simple affirmation and ...

Quick, put your hands in the air if you favor preserving the environment!

Globally speaking, who won't? Who out there - except the truly ignorant - wishes to trash Mother Earth?

Say "Hallelujah!"

Now moving beyond simple affirmation and exhortation, it's at this point in the road where all of us will start diverging, be it at the next step, ten or a hundred more, unable to reach a universal agreement on each if not most of the actions constituting that which is "best" for our Third Rock from the Sun - environmental or otherwise.

Today's thoughts have been provoked by a certain North American-based motorsports series, which through self-anointment and promotion (the latter attempted by any savvy enterprise) has all but proclaimed its series-wide use of "clean" fuels as being the very salvation of Earth.

Insofar as this space heretofore has been devoted primarily to motorsports, the non-politically inclined reader is excused from further reading inasmuch as motorsports, per se, won't be discussed herein - if nothing else because motorsports' combined annual "carbon footprint" is relatively insignificant as compared to, say, Florida's daily vehicle traffic.

In short: you can bug off if saving the world or anyone living on it is not on your "to-do" list.

This writer would like to additionally note he didn't just one day awaken and suddenly decide to wrestle with environmental issues, preferring to allow sleeping dogs to lie - at least as it applies to this forum.

Yet, being first broached by that "North American-based motorsports series" in 2007 and more recently spurred by an ever-increasing tempo fostered by that series' own drumbeat, the subject now clearly is on the table and, as such, is as open to discussion as would be tire grip or engine formulas.

Evidently not merely content to entertain the public by promoting motorsports events, in an unprecedented move the "series" has implicitly allied itself with a "movement" and, still worse as this writer sees it, has explicitly allied itself not with just a member or personality within a government but with the government itself - as though such an alliance is needed to legitimize the series' very existence.

"It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself." - Thomas Jefferson

Jumping momentarily from a soapbox provided by long-ago politicians who both formed and feared the very government they created - thus enabling its citizens to be critical of it without reprisal - this writer will start with the simplest facts and progress into the deeper aspects about the most popular of today's biofuels: ethanol.

In the U.S. ethanol has been a gasoline additive since the 1970's but hit its current popularity's first real stride after the California Air Resources Board (CARB) forced a discontinuation by January 1, 2003 of an additive, MTBE, from intrastate gasoline supplies.

Introduced in about 1979, MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether) is a volatile, odorless and colorless liquid resulting from a chemical reaction of combining methanol and isobutylene. Designed to replace lead in gasoline, MTBE is an "oxygenate," the use of which was accelerated by petroleum refiners - particularly in "reformulated gasoline" (RFG) destined for heavily populated urban areas - so as to fulfill mandates contained in The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 (altered somewhat by the Energy Policy Act of 2005).

CARB ordered MTBE's ban after President William J. Clinton's administration failed its attempts to ban the substance through Congressional action.

Clinton-appointed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency head Carol Browner sought MTBE's ban after the substance started showing up in water supplies.

(That MTBE - which is not a naturally occurring element - isn't suitable for human consumption or that it got into groundwater outside of human involvement isn't herein at issue.)

MTBE's ban had been formally debated as early as 1999 on the U.S. Senate floor, with two prominent senators lining up on opposite sides of the issue.

Arguing for and sponsoring legislation to replace MTBE with "renewable" substances like ethanol was South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle, a longtime ethanol advocate whose large agricultural constituency would assuredly benefit from increased ethanol production.

Essentially seeking to replace MTBE with ethanol, Daschle introduced legislation that sought to alter existing U.S. Clean Air Act provisions, specifically banning MTBE's use as a gasoline "oxygenate."

Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas - a state deriving benefit from petroleum and chemical processing - noted the manmade MTBE's water contamination could've come only from leaky underground storage tanks or human misuse and, in opposing MTBE's outright ban, argued it was those problems, and not MTBE, which most warranted an attack.

Gramm additionally warned that replacing MTBE with ethanol was impracticable (look it up) due to supply and transport deficiencies, that already adverse air quality could be further exacerbated by ethanol's highly evaporative nature and expressed concerns about ethanol's production negatively impacting food supplies.

Daschle's legislative initiative failed to become law, though a resolution in support of MTBE discontinuation emerged from the Senate in the summer of 1999 and, as mentioned briefly above, the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

Undeterred and acting outside of federal sanction, California's late-1999 MTBE ban, incrementally phased in through the end of 2002, led to other state bans and, with sizable populations in those areas, effectively forced refineries to use ethanol as a replacement oxygenator.

Ethanol's production and use thereafter dramatically increased and spread to even wider usage in gasoline, going beyond being only an oxygenator additive, in some cases becoming the largest single component of fuel formulas.

Today, ethanol formulation for automobiles ranges to 85-percent ethanol/15-percent gasoline, known as E85. "E10" (10-percent ethanol/90-percent gasoline) is available to roughly 1/3 of present-day drivers.

"There are significant known and unknown technical issues (ranging from the effects of ethanol on 'soft' components like gaskets to 'hard' components like valves) associated with changing the U.S. conventional motor gasoline pool to accommodate higher than E10 blends. While some of these may be surmountable with additional research and the resultant use of new materials and engine/equipment designs, these can only be implemented in new equipment and with proper lead time." "Technical Paper On The Introduction of Greater Than E10-Gasoline Blends," by Ranajit Sahu, PhD, Mechanical Engineering, California Institute of Technology.

As compared to unleaded gasoline, gallon for gallon, ethanol is less efficient.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a 2006 Chevrolet Impala's 19-gal. fuel tank filled with E85 will travel about 75-percent as far as it would if filled by the same quantity of unleaded gasoline and given the same travel route.

According to the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition, more than 500,000 E85 flex-fuel vehicles are registered in Texas - and all of 31 (that's right, t-h-i-r-t-y-one) fueling stations are available statewide at which they can say "Fill 'er up with E85, cowboy!"

Oh, and driving that E85 Impala in Texas? Essentially arriving on fumes, an E85 Impala driver will have to fill and drain his tank roughly three times during a 625-mile cruise from Dallas to El Paso, Texas.

(Find the number of registered E85-capable vehicles and filling stations available in your state: www.americanprogress.org/issues/2007/06/e85bystate.html)

According to a February 28, 2008 Los Angeles Times story by Elizabeth Douglass, "of 9,600 U.S. stations selling Chevron or Texaco fuel, 26 offer biofuels." And, costing roughly $50,000 for an E85 pump upgrade, few dealers are rushing to install biofuels pumps.

Ethanol is not necessarily "cleaner" and more eco-friendly than gasoline.

California's Stanford University Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering's Mark Jacobson in his study, "Effects of Ethanol (E85) Versus Gasoline Vehicles on Cancer and Mortality in the United States," writes that "Due to its ozone effects, future E85 (usage) may be a greater overall public health risk than gasoline" and that "E85 is unlikely to improve air quality over (that of) future gasoline vehicles."

Agreeing with Jacobson on a different level, Environment Canada collected data directly from E85-engined cars.

"Looking at tailpipe emissions - from a greenhouse gas perspective - there really isn't much difference between ethanol and gasoline," said the agency's toxic emissions' research head, Greg Rideout.

Here's another eco-friendly tack: "Quite clearly, some biofuels are just ludicrously unsustainable and actually make things worse," chief United Kingdom scientific advisor John Beddington said Feb. 28 on Web site Planet Ark.

"One of the areas which seems to me to be just mind-blowingly dumb is to actually cut down rainforest to grow crops for biofuels" - such being frequently seen in the rain forests of Brazil, the ethanol-for-cars movement's poster-child state.

"Hopefully we will be moving away quite quickly from that," Beddington concluded.

Regardless of however fast one wishes to move away from paying for fossil fuels, ethanol still isn't a "cheap" alternative.

The U.S. Government (that would be the "taxpayers") - currently subsidize ethanol directly (absent of whatever crop subsidies may have been applied beforehand) to the tune of 51-cents per gallon and thus hide ethanol's real cost at whatever pump wherever one might find it.

By the end of 2007 U.S. ethanol production had grown by three- to four-billion gallons over that of 2005 - a doubling of ethanol production in two year's time.

Ethanol does not materialize from thin air, it must be derived from something. In the U.S., for the most part that "something" is corn.

>From the beginning of 2006 to the end February 2008, corn prices at the Chicago Board Of Trade went from under $2 per bushel to nearly six dollars per bushel - an increase of nearly 300-percent.

So, the retort comes, "The heck with corn, we'll use cellulose-based crops for ethanol production."

You mean cellulose crops like wheat?

Wheat prices increased 250-percent over the same period as corn. Soy was up 275-percent over same period. How about barley? Beer and Scotch drinkers know where we're going with this one, and it ain't down. Barley climbed nearly 300-percent during the same period. Rice was up "only" 225-percent.

Pick a grain - any grain - and over the last two years its price has dramatically increased. Some of it due to weather factors, too, but ethanol production increases surely played a hand.

How about sugarcane?

Close to half of the world's sugarcane crop is produced in Brazil, where sugarcane-derived ethanol is used for more than 30-percent of its fuel needs (additionally noting that the country's automobile exhaust emissions standards are far more lax than that of the U.S.).

As of 2006, Brazil annually produced about 455-million metric tons of sugarcane, roughly one-third of the world's total "sugar crop" (which includes sugar beets), according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Dissuading its import into the States and in "defense" of promoting domestic production the U.S. imposes a stiff tariff on imported Brazilian ethanol but, still, Brazil doesn't have enough available land for its present sugarcane-growing needs - the reader being reminded of observations made by UK science advisor John Beddington, above.

Now, here comes the biggest ethanol-related problem of all: food.

>From 1990 to 2005, world grain consumption climbed by an average of 21 million tons per year, even before U.S. ethanol demand took off.

In 2007, the U.S. production of ethanol sucked up an additional 27 million tons of grains over that of 2006, equating to six-million tons more than the annual increase previously directed to the world's food supply. Food grains devoted to ethanol production jumped from 54 million tons in 2006 to about 81 million tons in 2007.

More of that sucking sound is yet to come, because if only 50 of the 62 U.S. ethanol distilleries currently under construction come on line in 2008 as projected, food-grains conversion to ethanol will more than again double 2007's 27-million-ton increase and climb to an estimated 114 million tons of food grains devoted to ethanol production - 28 percent of the entire projected 2008 U.S. grain harvest.

"Projected" is an important qualifier in the whole idea of food "plantings" because such figures are based on expected weather conditions which may or may not actually occur. The weather has been known to perplex even the best meteorologists, you know.

Indeed, as a result of drought, Canada, the world's largest producer of "winter" wheat, has seen that crop drop by about 40-percent this year - though some of the former wheat acreage was redirected to corn production for, of course, ethanol production.

If recent gas-price increases have irritated more than a few souls, what will happen with continued food-price increases or, worse yet, altogether vanished food supplies - of which more would be and could be available without it going to ethanol production?

Gasoline shortages will get a few grumbles but the latter is almost guaranteed to foment social unrest everywhere.

Looking beyond present and pending cost increases for grain and related foods (like beef, pork and chicken) on grocers' shelves, the World Bank says that for each 2-percent increase in food costs, caloric intake drops by 1-percent for those in the world who already are straddling that thin line between life and death as a result of too little food.

The U.N. World Food Program (WFP) says that 18,000 children are dying each day from hunger and related illnesses despite its having supplied emergency food aid to 37 countries. The agency has already announced it's cutting food shipments due to soaring prices.

As have his forefathers before him, this fifth-generation Floridian loves the "the woods" in which he's lived during the bulk of his life. He has been a firsthand witness of the nearly seven-in-ten people of Florida's present population who, by moving into the state, have all but trashed the very thing which attracted them in the first place.

Thus, he'll not stand in opposition to that which will improve the quality of his life and an eco system which he's long revered.

However, "parts is parts" and this whole, almost all-out rush to ethanol production has some serious imbalances in it that, at the very least, appear to be doing more harm than good.

Given the apparent, readily verifiable and glaring discrepancies between the good and bad of ethanol use - especially the taking of food from people's mouths, part - this writer surely won't anytime soon be jumping on any "Go ethanol, go!" bandwagon, much less seeking governmental "blessing" for having done so.

"Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force; like fire, a troublesome servant and a fearful master." - George Washington.

    DC Williams, exclusively for motorsport.com

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