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"Dirty" corn ethanol could soon be on the chopping block

Tom Buis, CEO of Growth Energy -- a pro-corn ethanol lobby -- cheered a recent Supreme Court victory over automakers and petroleum lobbyists who looked to block the sale of E15 blends.  He comments, "Now that the final word has been issued, I hope that oil companies will begin to work with biofuel producers to help bring new blends into the marketplace that allow for consumer choice and savings."

Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) -- another top corn ethanol lobbying group -- echoes these sentiments.  Even as automakers warn of dire engine damage, he comments, "This is another example of oil companies unnecessarily scaring people, and it’s just flat-out wrong."

I. Corn Ethanol -- Good News or Bad?

But basic science suggests there may be more to it than that.  In order to handle higher ethanol blends, engine and fuel system parts made of rubber, plastic, metal, and other materials in engines must be coated with special sealants to prevent permeation of ethanol and degradation.  Older vehicles do not have that sealant -- so Mr. Dinneen appears to be basing his perspective on the fact that newer vehicles do, and thus will not be affected.

But aside from the engine life issue, there's other major concerns about corn ethanol.  First, after years of government subsidies for the use of corn as a sweetener, the commercial food industry is deeply dependent on corn syrup -- and by proxy corn crops.  Corn ethanol and corn syrup both compete for the same crop -- the most sugary breeds of corn.  And even when corn ethanol producers ferment with lower sugar feed corn, they still raise prices of livestock feed, bumping meat prices higher.  As a result, the corn ethanol industry has been shown to elevate food prices in multiple ways, according to experts.

The issues with corn ethanol run far deeper than engine damage. [Image Source: Digital Trends]

Further, while ethanol is more efficient (per cost) in single-mode engines, in dual-mode engines (using blends), it's been shown that the customer gets less fuel economy when using various blends than if they went all ethanol or all gas.  In many cases this makes blended fuels more effective on a per-mile basis than gas.  Ethanol proponents insist the market will adjust, but it's yet to be seen if that actually happens.

Lastly, there are questions over whether corn ethanol is greenwashing.  When only emissions at the pipe are considered corn ethanol appears to cut emissions.  But when the entire life cycle -- from plough to pipe -- is considered, it appears that corn ethanol actually increases emissions (unlike a number of alternative biofuels).  Further, some have claimed the entire production process of ethanol has a net loss of energy, meaning that the industry uses more fuel to grow, harvest, and ship corn ethanol than it gets out.

But for all the criticism, the fact remains that ethanol increases are currently the law of the land.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed this year raising blending targets 16.5 billion gallons, up 8.5 percent from a year ago.  By 2022 production will double.  If those targets remain in place, it will be virtually impossible for refiners to sell anything but E15.  Refiners obtain a certain amount of credits for blending in ethanol; and if they don't blend enough they face stiff fines.

In fact, under the current rollout, it would be unsurprising to see E20 or E25 mixtures being forced into service to keep pace with the doubling of production quotas.

Many new vehicles -- including those from Chrysler Group LLC, Toyota Motor Corp. (TYO:7203), Nissan Motor Comp., Ltd. (TYO:7201), Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (BMW), and Volkswagen AG (ETR:VOW) still do not support E15; using E15 in them will void your warranty, according to the automakers, regardless of what the federal policy mandates.  But this situation may worsen in years ahead, as even automakers like Ford Motor Comp. (F) who support E15 do not support E20 or E25 in most of their models (some "E85" capable vehicles are sold, but they remain a minority).

In other words, even if your vehicle can use E15 without damage, you may be in the same position Chrysler, Toyota, Nissan, BMW, and Volkswagen owners are in today, just down the road.  When higher blends arrive, you may be just a fillup away from voiding your warranty.

II. Is it Time to Reform or Roll Back the Energy Act of 2007?

Amidst that backdrop, there is some growing momentum in Washington D.C. to roll back the 2007 Energy Act, which was signed by President George W. Bush.  Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee is quoted by The Detroit News as saying that a bill to reform that 2007 law is incoming, with the aim of passing it by the end of this year.

Much of the debate in the House currently centers on whether the best option is to kill the original law altogether, or whether it'd be better to modify it in some regard scaling back targets.  Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) proposed killing it, but his colleague Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Kentucky) is fighting to simply rework it, commenting, "We want is an RFS (renewable fuel standard) that can work for everyone involved, be it farmers, renewable fuel producers, refiners, and automakers. And most importantly, we want a policy that benefits the American driving public."

These stands represent largely who the representatives received their money from.  Rep. Barton is funded/sponsored by the likes of Pickens Comp., and Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM) [source].  Rep. Whitfield is funded/sponsored by Koch Industries, who owns ethanol plants, and Caterpillar Inc. (CAT) who makes machinery used harvest corn [source].

The big question is what will happen if a repeal or reworking makes it to the Senate floor.  The Democratic controlled Senate has shown very little interest in trimming back corn ethanol blending targets.  The blame cannot be pinned solely on Democrats; both Senators from both parties have been more heavily funded by "big corn" than their House colleagues.  That said, the Democrats are leading the push to protect corn ethanol at present, with the likes of Senators Tom Harkin (D-Iowa); Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota); Amy Klobuchar (D/"Farmer-Labor Party"- Minnesota); and Al Franken (D/"Farmer-Labor Party"-Minnesota) fighting rollbacks.
corn profits
Big corn has won over politicians with via its friend "bill". [Image Source:]
In fact these Senators proposed increasing ethanol quotas via the trickily worded Biofuels Expansion Act of 2011.  Thus it remains to be seen whether an effort to scale back targets can survive, amidst heavy lobbying from the corn industry (even as the other side lobbies hard as well).

Meanwhile the E15 mass rollout creeps closer.  Currently only a handful of stations in the Midwest carry the blend, as most refiners have not yet started its mass production.  But with the Supreme Court refusing to hear appeals on the standard, it seems just a matter of time before E15 is pouring out the pump across the nation -- even if that fuel damages your older vehicle, RV, boat, or motorcycle.

Sources: Growth Energy, The Detroit News

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RE: Stupid
By BRB29 on 7/2/2013 8:40:20 AM , Rating: 2
What's the solution, only let people with a certain education level vote? Or just accept that the US's education level is so bad that we've passed the point of no return to have an effective democracy?

What are you basing this on? We're not on the top or the middle. We're just above average in education level.

What point of no return are you talking about? Our colleges/universities are world renowned and attract massive amounts of international students each year. Our public schools(K-12) are bad in some and good in others.

Voting doesn't need all that much brain or education. It takes effort, time, common sense and some damn research. Anybody out of high school can read and decide for themselves. Somehow, most of us are allergic to reading and research. No wonder why fast food is so popular and any place with bright colorful banners seems to attract people like flies.

RE: Stupid
By FITCamaro on 7/2/2013 9:27:28 AM , Rating: 2
Exactly. You don't have to be highly intelligent to vote. You need to be able to read and use common sense. Part of the problem is it isn't so common anymore.

RE: Stupid
By Ammohunt on 7/2/2013 12:55:54 PM , Rating: 2
The problem i see is that most people are apolitical or apathetic to the entire process. People tell me all the time they don't vote so that somehow absolves them of any responsibility of bad government(something this entire nation is suffering from currently).

They used to teach civics and detailed American history in school which both are a requirement in my mind to make an informed vote. Voting now is based on social issues not the the longevity or best interests of the country. Think i give a rats ass about abortion,gay marriage or green energy when we have 15-20% unemployment and our economy is in the dumper? Academic theory is not the way to run a country our current president has proven that without a doubt.

The current ignorant generation (20 to 30 somethings) better get it together if they want to enjoy a standard of living their parents enjoyed or else they better relearn subsistence farming otherwise they are going to be real hungry in the near future.

RE: Stupid
By superstition on 7/3/2013 10:42:50 AM , Rating: 2
Think i give a rats ass about abortion,gay marriage or green energy when we have 15-20% unemployment and our economy is in the dumper?

Civil rights aren't academic, unless you're not the one being denied them.

There are a lot of reasons for voter apathy.
Academic theory is not the way to run a country our current president has proven that without a doubt.

Anti-intellectualism may seem nice, but it carries a steep price. The Soviet Union tried placing people lacking the necessary scientific background in high-level planning/management positions and it resulted in famine and the like.

And, Stalin may have been a very intelligent bank robber, criminal gang leader, and so on... but that didn't make him very good at managing the arts. Russia went from perhaps the most vibrant artistic ferment in the world to being a place of "Socialist Realism" -- a drab lifeless pose rather than a reflection of real living.

"Academic theory" underpins everything. People should have a rational factual basis for their beliefs and behaviors.

Also, the attempt to make a dichotomy between Obama and Bush in this regard fails because neither of them are particularly rational when the big picture is taken into account. Both are craven marionettes for the 1%.
They used to teach civics and detailed American history in school which both are a requirement in my mind to make an informed vote.

Unless something has changed in the public schools that I haven't heard about, civics is still being taught and tested. That doesn't mean people are going to be any less apathetic and ignorant.

We learned, for instance, quite a bit about the Trail of Tears, but do you think the vast majority of students truly understood the ramifications of that learning? Highly unlikely.
The current ignorant generation (20 to 30 somethings) better get it together

It's easy to blame "those kids", which every older generation does -- while conveniently ignoring the structural basis for the problems. That structural basis is put into place and maintained to a large degree by those in power: those who are generally older than 20 to 30.

"We shipped it on Saturday. Then on Sunday, we rested." -- Steve Jobs on the iPad launch

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