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  (Source: Center for Environment and Commerce)
Vote is cheered by environmentalists, jeered by corn coalition

Don't like the price of your shopping cart at The Kroger Comp. (KG)?  Blame corn ethanol.

I. Corn Ethanol is Rolled Back

That's what a government sponsored study says [PDF].  The 2008 study found corn ethanol demand was responsible for jacking up food prices on some corn heavy items an estimated 20 percent or more.  What's more, automakers say that the use of higher ethanol blends will shorten the life of engines, causing hundreds of millions in warranty claims.  And several studies have even indicated that ethanol increases atmospheric carbon emissions, when one of the key goals of alternative fuels is to go "carbon neutral".

Yet the alternative fuel's proponents claim that it’s tantamount to defending the nation.  They point to instability in top U.S. oil supplying regions like the Middle East and Venezuela, and hoist corn ethanol as the U.S. sole alternative to trade with these dangerous parties.  They also say that ethanol is boosting a core sector of the U.S. economy -- the farming industry.

But as public support for the fuel wanes, for better or worse it appears the critics are winning.  A key vote (H.R. 3199; PDF) in the House has silence a bid by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to put more ethanol at the pump -- for now.

Corn ethanol handouts
The federal handouts are finally ending for corn ethanol. [Image Source: AP]

The recent rollbacks began with a back and forth game of political theater; the House and Senate finally killed the multi-billion dollar ethanol subsidy [1][2][3].  That left only the EPA's fuel-blending mandates, which have promoted ethanol by mandating that gasoline at the pump be blended with a certain level of ethanol.

The EPA hoped to roll out E15 this year, a blend of 15 percent ethanol and 85 percent gasoline.  This is the highest ethanol blend that has ever been pushed out on the mass market.  Today most of the fuel sold in the U.S. is E10 -- a lower ethanol blend of 10 percent ethanol, 90 percent gas.  The EPA claims that it knows more about cars that the companies that designs them, insisting that the automakers don't know what they're talking about and the high-ethanol blend would be harmless to engines.

II. House Vote Derails E15

But the House Science Committee on Wed. passed a proposal by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) to defund the EPA's push for E15, leaving it essentially dead.

The resolution was supported by(19: 0 Dem., 19 Repub.):
Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Tex.) [contact]           Rep. James Sensenbrenner [contact]
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) [contact]       Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) [contact]
Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Mary.) [contact]    Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) [contact]
Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Tex.) [contact] Rep. Michael McCaul, Sr. (R-Tex.) [contact]
Rep. Paul Broun, M.D. (R-Geor.) [contact]   Rep. Sandy Adams (R-Flor.) [contact]
Rep. Ben Quayle (R-Ariz.) [contact]         Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.) [contact]
Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Virg.) [contact]         Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Alab.) [contact]
Rep. Andy Harris, M.D. (R-Mary.) [contact]    Rep. Randy Hultrgren (Ill.) [contact]
Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.) [contact]   Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.) [contact]
Rep. Dan Benishek (R-Mich.) [contact]

And opposed by (7: 6 Dem., 1 Repub.):
Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Tex.) [contact]
Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.) [contact]
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) [contact]
Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Mary.) [contact]
Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) [contact]
Rep. Ben Luján (D-N.M.) [contact]
Rep. Hansen Clarke (D-Mich.) [contact]

[source -- votes]

While the bill shoots down the E15 blending, it does leave the door open to ongoing research by the National Academy of Sciences.  It orders evaluating ethanol's benefits versus risks as a priority for the government research funder.

III. Passage Earns Praise, Condemnation

Rep. Sensenbrenner cheers the passage, stating:

I am pleased that the Committee voted today to put science before politics.  When it comes to a decision of this magnitude that would impact every American who owns a car, boat, or lawnmower, we must base our decisions on sound science, not political expediency.  The Administration has fast tracked E15 without considering that increasing the percentage of ethanol in our gasoline will cause premature engine failure, lower fuel efficiency, and void vehicle warranties.  In small engines, E15 is downright dangerous and the EPA has no credible plan to stop mis-fueling.  If ethanol is going to be the ‘fuel of the future,’ then there should be no problem conducting independent, comprehensive scientific analysis of its effect on American drivers.

The bill earned the Republicans praise from an unlikely ally -- environmentalists.  The group Friends of the Earth opposed the bill, which it saw as pushing a dirty fuel.  The group, which has referred to corn ethanol as a "con" in past press releases, wrote a letter of support [PDF] for the resolution to defund E15 and bump funding for E15 impact research.

Tom Buis, CEO of corn ethanol producer coalition Growth Energy, blasted the bill, though, stating:

This is a waste of time and a waste of taxpayer dollars. No fuel blend has been tested as thoroughly as E15. No fuel blend has undergone the level of scrutiny E15 has – and passed the tests like E15 did. They’ve been looking at E15 for more than three years. Now Rep. Sensenbrenner wants to move the goal posts again – a move that would only add more red tape and regulation. This would do nothing to help the American consumer, but only continues our reliance on the OPEC monopoly.

Domestic ethanol creates American jobs. Foreign oil drains American money out of our economy – and puts it to work in Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and Caracas. We want jobs in American cities. Only American industries – like U.S. ethanol – will create those jobs. Foreign oil costs American families more money at the pump, hurting the consumers. Let’s not create more hurdles and regulation that prevent those jobs from being created.

Ethanol jobs
Ethanol producers say the fuel creates "green" jobs, and that the new resolution hurts Americans. [Image Source: RFA]

Growth Energy claims that past studies indicating higher net life cycle carbon emissions were flawed.  It claims that the E15 enforcement would have created 136,000 jobs and cut carbon emissions by 8 million metric tons.  The group says the resolution adds "red tape", a slightly ironic phrasing, given that the resolution was a move to strike a piece of government regulation.

Sources: U.S. House, EPA, Growth Energy

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RE: **$# Corn
By Samus on 2/8/2012 11:35:31 AM , Rating: 2
What needs to be considered is corn is a switch crop, so every other year, the corn that is grown isn't even edible, so it is wasted.

However, E15 is a joke. My small engines from my lawn mower to motorcycle have huge problems with ethanol-based fuels, especially the sensitive rubber parts in the carburators that leak year-after-year. Ask anyone with a boat, and they'll tell you the ethanol fuels clog their sumps as they coagulate at the bottom of the tank.

To offer E15 as an option, fine, but as a requirement is completely unacceptable. I already have to go out of my way to fine ethanol-free fuel for my applications and keep a 20-gallon container in my garage, and under their proposed policy, that won't even exist anymore!

RE: **$# Corn
By HrilL on 2/8/2012 11:52:31 AM , Rating: 2
Hmm I don't know of any place in California that has anything less than E10. If I had the option I'd pay more for 100% gas I would. Engines run better and you get better milage. Whatever happened to freedom of choice?

RE: **$# Corn
By Ringold on 2/8/2012 12:08:22 PM , Rating: 3
Freedom of choice doesn't exist in California in matters where your state thinks it knows better than you.

I've seen it for sale though here in Florida a couple places, but it usually looks to be as much as 50 cents or so more then the E10 on sale. Don't know that its worth the premium, at least here. My hope is some more stations offer it and up the competition.

RE: **$# Corn
By JediJeb on 2/8/2012 2:02:07 PM , Rating: 2
What needs to be considered is corn is a switch crop, so every other year, the corn that is grown isn't even edible, so it is wasted.

Where does this come from? My family has been involved in farming for over 50 years and I can tell you that whether it is the first year or third year corn is grown on a section of ground it is all edible. When you take it to market it all gets mixed into the same bins. The only separations are between yellow corn and white corn, then if the yellow corn happens to be the high oil variety it is separated further. Also none of the corn used in ethanol production is of the type you find canned in the grocery, that is sweet corn.

The yellow corn used to make ethanol is also used to make High Fructose Corn Syrup, corn oil, distillers grain, or used to animal feed. It isn't even used that much for corn meal. The main reason switching corn to ethanol production has caused any increase in food prices is because it raises the price of HFCS used as a food additive. Honestly if the food producers would use less HFCS that would lower the cost of processed food and probably make it more healthy.

That said, I can say that I am not all that keen on using ethanol for fuel, at least not as we are currently. I just hate when people start posting things agriculture related that are not correct. I also do not agree with any subsidies promoting ethanol in fuels, if it is going to be useful it must compete on a level playing field.

Another thing that is interesting is the complaint against ethanol in fuel for seal compatibility. According to this chart of commonly used gasket materials, Ethanol is very little effect on the sealing materials while gasoline is very aggressive.

If E15 or E10 is degrading gasket materials in engines then the engine manufactures may not be using the best materials in their engines. The same arguments were made when lead was removed from gasoline with many studies showing engines wearing out when using the unleaded fuel, but I know we have a couple farm tractors built in the 1950s at home that have ran just fine on unleaded fuel without any undue wear, so it isn't something that applies to all engines.

RE: **$# Corn
By Keeir on 2/8/2012 2:18:09 PM , Rating: 2
Comon, lets not be dense here.. if it makes more money to plant the ethanol corn, then that's what farmers will do... which leads to shortages of other corn types until the other corn types present the same profit margin as the ethanol corn. In the end this all gets passed along to the end consumer who pays more for any food containing corn, while the farmer makes a better profit margin unless more land is developed for planting corn. Dramatically increasing demand for any product through artificial action will have at least short term ripples in the market. In the case of corn, one could probably fairly successfully argue that a short term duration is ~5 years, during which the price of complimentary goods and the main good would vary somewhat randomly.

About the gaskets, I think you'll notice that material that gives a "A" versus Gasoline gives a "B" versus Ethyl Ach. This of course ignore that Gasoline and Ethyl Ach. dissolve different things. The seals also need to be effective versus these componds as well. Using that chart, if I design a gasket to resist gasoline from FKM, and now the fuel system starts using E10/E15... do I have a 10% reduction is life? 25% reduction? 50% reduction? 5% reduction? Its not really known.

RE: **$# Corn
By tastyratz on 2/8/2012 2:45:34 PM , Rating: 2
This is all true, it has nothing to do with crappy seals being used. Different materials are compatible in different ways. Hell, ethanol is corrosive to aluminum... not a whole lot of good materials to choose from as an alternative for cylinder heads. Sure there are plastic intake manifolds now unfortunately... but you can't get away from aluminum heads at this time.

I agree that hfcs should be dropped but the usa tarriffs to discourage using sugar are a whole other lobby nightmare. We only have so much farmland, and if you could grow ethanol corn for bigger money then why bother with another food crop? So is our plight.

RE: **$# Corn
By JediJeb on 2/8/2012 7:16:39 PM , Rating: 2
We only have so much farmland, and if you could grow ethanol corn for bigger money then why bother with another food crop? So is our plight.

So farmers should not worry about making money and only worry about being slaves to the rest of the population by growing cheap products to keep the food prices down in the stores?

Until 2008 when corn prices spiked, the average price of corn had remained relatively the same since the early 1970s, yet the price of fuel, equipment, land and every other thing needed to farm increased several fold. If you really look around there are many farms that have been sold and turned into housing development because the farmers just couldn't make money any longer. It used to be if you had 100 acres you could support a family just from farming(my family did it in the early 70s) but now unless you have several thousand acres, a farmer has to also have some other type of job just to afford to run the farm.

All that aside though, for the last 40 years most of the corn grown would fall into the "ethanol corn" category, not the "food on the shelf" category. There may have been a slight shift between growing soy beans to corn but since the prices of both are high right now it is almost a push, and very little land has been switched from growing "another food crop" to growing corn, since most farmers that grow food crops are not equipped to grow corn on a large scale and vice versa. Also depending on weather large shifts between corn and soybeans can occur. Just like last year around here with all the early rain and flooding, many farmers could not plant until late in the season so what would have normally been corn fields had mostly soy beans growing in them.

The price increase in food is just the markets using ethanol production as an excuse to raise prices. Same happened several years ago with milk prices when the milk sellers started getting on the local news telling everyone that due to increasing corn prices the farmers were charging more for milk. What they didn't tell the public was that the bulk price for milk was fixed and the farmers were absorbing the increased cost of the feed while the milk plants were charging more to the stores using the excuse their raw product was costing them more even when it wasn't. Just like the day crude oil prices jump gasoline prices jump the same day, yet when oil prices fall, it takes a long time for gasoline prices to come back down. It is more of an excuse than a cause and effect.

As for the worry about aluminum heads on engines, do the flex fuel vehicles use only cast iron heads or do they also use aluminum? I haven't worked on one of those yet but since they are running E85 what do they use to avoid the problems?

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