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Rapid Growth of Ethanol Industry Spurs Controversies

February 22, 2007

Addressing an ethanol industry trade group meeting in Tucson this week, a top Bush administration official pitched new proposals to dramatically boost the use of alternative fuels in the next decade in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the amount oil imported into the U.S., the Arizona Daily Star reports. Stephen Johnson, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief, said a proposal would require the country to use 35 billion gallons a year of alternative fuels by 2017, compared with 6 million gallons today. Gasoline use would have to be cut by 20 percent in the same period. But across the country, the ethanol boom has created controversies: whether it produces enough energy compared with what it takes to make it, how much it cuts air pollution and greenhouse gases, and its effect on consumers' corn prices. Last year, the U.S. ethanol industry produced a record 4.9 billion gallons, opened 15 new "biorefineries" to produce more of the corn-based fuel and began construction of 50 more, the head of the Renewable Fuels Association trade group told the gathering, which his group sponsored. Typically, E85 pump prices are a few pennies a gallon less than regular gasoline, due to a federal tax incentive that amounts to a 51-cent-per-gallon subsidy aimed at promoting renewable fuel supplies, according to the Arizona Daily Star. But a study by a University of California scientist found that it takes 29 percent more energy to produce ethanol than the amount of fuel produced. However, several other studies have found gains of 25 percent to 50 percent in energy supply due to ethanol. Ethanol also is criticized because the corn used to produce it requires fertilizers and pesticides that can leach into groundwater, lakes and streams. Also, last year Consumer Reports tested a Chevrolet Tahoe SUV that ran on ethanol and found its fuel economy was poor—only 10 miles per gallon. Federal proposals to boost ethanol and other renewable-fuel use will significantly reduce carbon monoxide, benzene and hydrocarbons emitted from cars, although polluting, ozone-forming compound emissions would increase slightly, according to the EPA. But a University of Minnesota study said producing ethanol from corn saves only 12 percent of the greenhouse gases produced by gasoline use.
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