US ethanol policies need to be overhauled

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A decade ago it seemed as if turning corn and other grains into fuel would be an efficient, cost-effective way to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil.

At that time the federal government mandated ethanol, which is ethyl alcohol from starch or sugar-based feedstocks such as corn, be mixed with gasoline so less oil-based fuel would be used.

But the vast increase in the production of ethanol has had some unintended consequences, including taking a toll on the environment.

The Associated Press sent a reporter to Iowa to look at the impact of ethanol on the land in the state where 15 million additional acres of corn are now planted to make fuel.

As farmers rushed to find new places to grow corn, they destroyed habitat and polluted water supplies, The Associated Press investigation found.

The AP also found that five million acres of land set aside for conservation is in use. Landowners filled in wetlands. They plowed into pristine prairies, releasing carbon dioxide that had been locked in the soil. Sprayers pumped out billions of pounds of fertilizer, some of which seeped into drinking water, contaminated rivers and worsened the huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico where marine life can’t survive.

As a result, environmentalists and many scientists now reject corn-based ethanol as bad environmental policy.

A lot of motorists aren’t keen on the mix of 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline. They contend it clogs engine parts and causes damage. Depending on the engine, they could be correct. Not all engines tolerate ethanol well.

The use of so much corn to make ethanol has driven up the price of meat and other food. For example, the cheap corn and grains that were used to feed cattle are now being turned into ethanol. That forces the cattle ranchers to spend more on feed and those costs get passed on to the consumer.

If mandates were not in place, these problems might have been negated by supply and demand in the marketplace.

But since the corn market was being artificially driven by a government mandate, the economics are out of whack.

Perhaps the federal government is accepting that reality. The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday proposed lowering requirements for biofuel use in 2014 to 16 percent lower than targets established by in 2007.

It is a start. The federal government needs to revamp its ethanol policy. It’s doing more harm than good.

Sometimes ideas, as warm and fuzzy as they might be, do not pan out.

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