More ethanol mandates no energy panacea


Conserving natural resources is always a worthy goal. But sometimes the effort, despite good intentions, proves to be misguided and counterproductive.

That seems to be the case with the push to blend increasing amounts of ethanol (grain alcohol) with gasoline as a way to reduce fossil fuel consumption and lower fuel costs.

Where the concept appears to be go wrong is in higher costs — in resources and in cash — to produce enough ethanol to meet the government-imposed mandates.

When corn or other grains are purchased to make ethanol, that means less of the product is available to be used as food for people or feed for animals, many of which are being raised for food. This drives up the cost of corn, grains and also meat.

In addition, fuel is used to grow the various crops being turned into ethanol.

So, in the end, the cost to produce ethanol fuel isn’t much cheaper, if at all, than producing gasoline.

The price of gasoline — with or without — ethanol has not gone down and the cost of related grocery items seem to be up.

Now, the changes in the various markets caused by the government mandate is good for some people and lousy for others. It depends on what folks are buying and selling.

This is why the petroleum industry went to court to block the sale of E15, a gas-ethanol blend of 15 percent ethanol. Current gas-ethanol blends are about 10 percent grain alcohol.

The U.S. Supreme Court this week rejected the challenge and left in place a place a ruling from lower courts dismissing challenges by Big Oil as well as trade groups representing food producers, restaurants and others. One of the arguments against E15 is that the higher ethanol content could damage engines of older cars and motorcycles.

The various interests aren’t fixated on either declining oil sales or car problems, their concern is the cost of the higher ethanol mandates will create rising costs and lower profits. This has zero do with the challenge made to the nation’s high court, which focuses on whether an action is or is not constitutional.

Nevertheless, rising costs and lower profits are reasonable concerns when the change in the markets are caused by government mandates.

This is similar to the situation in Washington state in which a higher and higher percentage of renewable energy for power generation is mandated under an initiative approved by voters.

The bulk of Washington’s power comes from hydro-generation, which is about the most renewable and clean energy possible. Yet, the initiative does not consider hydro as renewable.

As a result, power has to be purchased from green sources — wind and solar — that is more expensive.

Mandates such as ethanol content might be curbing one problem but they can also cause other problems creating higher costs.

And, ultimately, the higher costs are passed on to consumers, which should be a concern to us all.


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