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Is Alcohol the Answer? Weighing in on the ethanol debate
By Daniel Sturm, The Youngstown Walrus
Sep. 28, 2006

Ever had itchy eyes, a scratchy throat, and shortness of breath on a hot summer's day?
Chances are that you were exposed to ozone. As Katie Alvord points out in her book "Divorce You Car," automobiles are the top emitters of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds, which form ozone in the air.

Faced with the effects of climate change, California announced last Friday that it would sue the six largest automobile makers for allegedly contributing to global warming.

Stepping in line with this trend, one Ohio lawmaker has also recently introduced a bill to fight greenhouse gases. Last week, Representative Mike Foley (D-Cleveland) announced legislation that would require each service plaza along the 241-mile Ohio Turnpike to include at least one pump offering E85, an alternative fuel based on ethanol.

Ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, is distilled mostly from corn, but 15% gasoline is added to prevent humans from consuming it and becoming sick.

"Ethanol has tremendous potential to reduce Ohio's dependence on foreign oil while helping the environment," Foley said. "The more we can make ethanol available to consumers, the more we can do to stimulate demand, help Ohio's economy, and promote energy independence."

Currently only 11 gas stations in Ohio offer this 85% ethanol blend. The closest station is 100 miles southwest of Youngstown. The manager of the Wooster Marathon Mart, Anna Stern, said that most of her customers come from around Wooster, including the mayor's aide, and that she rarely gets customers from further away than Mansfield. "One time we had three engineers from Syracuse, New York, who came down to get some of the fuel. They were doing some experiments and we were the closest place they could find to get E85."

Availability in the U.S. is a huge problem. In comparison, the Canadian province of Ontario, alone, has 435 ethanol filling stations. Sam Spofforth, who heads Clean Fuels Ohio in Columbus, said that taking a long ride to Wooster would defeat the entire purpose. However, he said that he was sure the winds were changing toward a future that was less reliant on foreign oil.

"I'm almost certain that one station in the Youngstown area will agree to carry E85 by the end of this year," Spofforth said. Currently, two Youngstown retailers are currently considering the idea of offering biofuel. Although neither has yet made a commitment, Spofforth was optimistic, saying that incentives would make it worthwhile. Government grants would subsidize up to half of the $55,000 cost of installing a new corn-fuel pump.

The question is, if the E85 gas stations are available, how likely is it that Mahoning Valley residents will make the switch and begin running their cars on alcohol?

John Maze, a manager at Diane Sauer Chevrolet in Warren, would be interested. "If there was a local gas station on my way to work, I'd do it."

Maze already owns a flexible-fuel Chevrolet Impala that is designed to run on either corn-based fuel or regular gasoline. Clean Fuel Ohio estimates that 200,000 of Ohio's 12 million cars can run on the new biofuel, and notes that converting your vehicle from gasoline to ethanol is not a complicated fix.

Maze said he would pay the extra few cents (Wooster Marathon Mart currently charges $2.40 per gallon) to fuel his FFV if that was what it took to support the new technology, despite the fact that flex-fuel vehicles were less fuel-efficient. "With E85 you lose 15% in gas mileage," he acknowledged. "My Chevrolet Impala averages 28 mpg on regular gas. So if I could average 25 mpg on ethanol, I'm not losing much money at all."

Douglas Price, a professor of environmental science at Youngstown State University, was more skeptical. He said that the ethanol-gasoline blend stations would enhance public awareness. However, if people really wanted to make a difference in terms of saving money and the environment, they should concentrate on buying more fuel-efficient cars. "Take some of the larger SUVs that make 22 miles per gallon and compare that with the Chevrolet Aveo's 35 mpg. And there you are looking at a fuel consumption difference of a factor of two." The YSU professor said he drives a Honda Civic that averages 40 miles per gallon.

Opponents to the recent push for ethanol argue that it will not make America more independent of foreign fuels. The opposite may be the case. "While there are thousands of these vehicles on the road today, many of them never see a drop of ethanol," states the Sierra Club in a press release. Sierra Club and other opponents point out that flex-fuel vehicles receive bonus points form the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) program, a loophole that has made it possible for them to inflate their fuel economy numbers, making these vehicles appear more fuel efficient than actually are. Thus, as automotive columnist Eric Peters argues in a recent article for The American Spectator, a SUV like the GMC Yukon is rated at 33 mpg by CAFE standards when in fact it only gets 15 mpg in the city and 20 mpg on the highway.

Encouraging farmers to produce more corn for biofuel production could also drive up the cost of food, predicts Lester R. Brown, founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute. The grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV gas tank with ethanol could feed one person for a year, wrote Brown in Eco-Economy Update. Brazil, the world's largest sugar producer, is currently converting half of its sugar harvest to ethanol. But the transition has impacted the price of food crops. "With just 10% of the world's sugar harvest going into ethanol, the price of sugar has doubled. Cheap sugar may now be history." The same may happen to corn prices, said Brown.

One member of the Mahoning Valley's Green Party said that while ethanol could only be considered an intermediate solution to the global environmental crisis, it would be a step in the right direction - away from petroleum. "We need to start looking at this," said Carlette Chordas of Boardman who joined the Green Party in 2002. "Because we have only one thing we have to pass on for our children and grandchildren. And that's our environment."

Sam Spofforth, executive director of Clean Fuels Ohio, acknowledges that ethanol was "not the answer to all of our problems." He said that it is just one of many alternative fuel technologies - including hybrid-electrics, electric vehicles, bio-diesel, and natural gas - that could help reduce America's dependence on petroleum, clean the environment, and spur the economy.

Spofforth, who drives a flexible-fuel 2004 Ford Taurus around Columbus (where one ethanol gas pump exists) indicated that the future may lie in so-called "plug-in hybrid electric vehicles," which can travel up to 60 miles without using gasoline after an overnight charge from a standard electric socket. "You plug it in, get 30 miles from whatever the energy source might be - solar panels on your roof, wind-power, or from the grid. If you need to go further than that, it just seamlessly transitions and becomes a regular hybrid vehicle that gets very good mileage."

Columbiana County resident Matthew Whitten said he has long lost trust in the idea that politicians would ever promote anything but gas-guzzling cars to further America's oil addiction. He said he wasn't opposed to ethanol in principal but that it was an old hat (Henry Ford designed the famed Model-T Ford to run on alcohol saying in 1925 that it was "the fuel of the future").

"Why would anybody want to buy ethanol unless it was more economical than regular gasoline?" asked Whitten. After gasoline skyrocketed last year, Whitten decided to take action for himself. He adjusted the electrical fuel pump of his 1999 Ford Dodge, which was a simple fix he claims anyone can do for as little as $12. "You triple your gas mileage, you make your car run cleaner, and you cut your emissions down by almost 45%." If they'd like to find out more, Whitten welcomes readers of The Walruss to call him at home for free advice, at (330) 227-3653.

Daniel Sturm is German journalist who covers under-reported social and political topics in Europe and in the United States. Some of his work can be seen on the Internet, at http://www.sturmstories.com