More Energy Trouble

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If the ethanol lobby gets its way, Americans will spend billions of
dollars more at the gas pump each year, filling their cars with a blend of gasoline and ethanol.

A bill to accomplish has recently passed Congress. Its purpose is
twofold: first, to ban the use of MTBE, ethanol’s competition; second,
to mandate a rise in the use of ethanol in the United States from the
current level of 1.7 billion gallons this year to 5 billion gallons by


Co-authored by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Energy
Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), the measure is supposed to
extend the nation’s fuel supply and reduce tailpipe emissions. Remarkably, in spite of the hype, ethanol does neither. Ethanol is a huge waste of money, since it takes
more energy to produce a gallon of ethanol than is in the gallon of ethanol. Enthusiasts have recently claimed that these renewables could produce 35 Quads of energy in the future (the nation consumes about 100quads/yr).

What is so often missed with these sources is that it could easily take 40 quads of input energy to produce those 35 quads of output. This is by definition NOT a net source of energy!! This energy fact of life seems to have been overlooked Congress.

Ethanol comes at a high price. A study by the General
Accounting Office, the research arm of Congress, determined that
subsidies for ethanol since 1979 have cost American taxpayers more than
$7.1 billion.

Ethanol producers receive a 5.3-cent-a-gallon tax credit for ethanol.
Instead of tax revenues from the producers, this causes a reduction of the
nation’s Highway Trust Fund, which provides states with money for
highway and bridge construction and maintenance. A new study has
determined that the ethanol provisions in the Senate legislation could
reduce such funding by almost $10 billion over the 2003-2012 period.

Make no mistake about it, ethanol promises much good. But the reality is that the biggest beneficiaries will be a cartel of ethanol producers.

The problem is that the energy bill bans the additive
MTBE. “Reformulated” gasoline enhanced by MTBE, an oxygenate that is
made from methanol and butane, is currently used in 17 states to meet
clean-air standards, because it helps gasoline burn more completely,
thereby cutting down on tailpipe emissions. MTBE has highly favorable
performance qualities, especially low sulfur content and favorable
blending properties. About 87 percent of all reformulated gasoline in
the United States contains MTBE.

Nationally, MTBE accounts for 3 percent of the gasoline supply. But it
accounts for 10-15 percent of the gasoline supply in seven metropolitan
areas, including Los Angeles, Houston and New York City, where smog is a
serious health problem and reformulated gasoline is required. Ethanol,
on the other hand, provides only 1 percent of the fuel supply.

Presumably there would be beneficial results in some places from a
phase-out of MTBE, if less of the pungent oxygenate seeps into
underground water systems. But the culprit is leaky fuel tanks, and
these can be repaired. With prompt action, a number of communities have
shown that it is possible to fix underground fuel tanks at reasonable

What cannot be easily repaired are the lungs of people who suffer from
air pollution. People with lung disease, asthmatics and the elderly are
at risk from ozone smog and air toxics. That is why the Environmental
Protection Agency in 1995 ordered the most polluted cities to use
reformulated gas in order to reduce tailpipe emissions.

MTBE has been widely used on the East and West Coasts, far from
corn-growing regions. It became the fuel additive of choice because of
economics, availability, performance and safety.

Despite improved air quality in the nation’s most polluted cities, the
environmental movement has vigorously attacked the use of MTBE and
succeeded in getting it banned in several states.

The irony is that, scientifically speaking, MTBE is one of the most
tested and evaluated components in gasoline and in commerce. The
consensus is that no scientific evidence is available to conclude that
MTBE poses a cancer risk to humans. On the other hand, cleaner-burning
gasoline that contains MTBE is shown to reduce cancer risk levels from
toxic chemicals in vehicle exhausts.

Besides, problems arise in shipping ethanol. Unlike MTBE, which is
mixed with gasoline and shipped by pipeline, ethanol separates from
gasoline, and therefore must be shipped by barge, train or truck. This
adds to costs.

Moreover, blending ethanol with gasoline leads to more air pollution
because the volatility of the reformulated gas rises. Higher vapor
levels produce more ozone smog.

No one – with the possible exception of environmental ideologues –
would argue that MTBE has not helped reduce air pollution. Since
leaking fuel tanks are the real problem, let’s seal the tanks. Then we
could continue to use MTBE and not have to worry about the consequences
of paying a premium for heavily subsidized ethanol.

”’Michael R. Fox, Ph.D., is retired and living in Kaneohe. He has nearly 40 years experience in the energy field. He has also taught chemistry and energy at the University level. His interest in the communications of science has led to several communications awards, hundreds of speeches, and many appearances on television and talk shows. He can be reached via email at”’

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