In our opinion: The ethanol strategy

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 13 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this Nov. 24, 2010 file photo, traffic moves north along Interstate 270, in Germantown, Md., the day before the Thanksgiving Holiday. The country's thirst for gasoline is shrinking as cars and trucks become more fuel-efficient, the government mandates the use of more ethanol and people drive less. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, file)

Associated Press

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Back in 2007, Congress authorized the Environmental Protection Agency to make sure that more and more ethanol be integrated into the nation's gasoline supply every year. Yet high fuel prices and the struggling economy have resulted in people adjusting their habits to become more fuel-efficient and drive less. So to hit the EPA targets set six years ago, the amount of ethanol in gasoline sold at the pump would have to exceed 10 percent per gallon. Such a mixture would damage older engines and void the warranties on newer ones.

That's why the EPA, which is not usually hailed for its flexibility, has taken the unusual step of announcing that it plans to adjust the ethanol requirements for the coming year. This is a welcome development on its own, but it would greatly benefit the nation if both Congress and the EPA used this as an opportunity to re-evaluate their ethanol policy from the ground up.

Ethanol was supposed to provide an economically and environmentally sustainable alternative to traditional fossil fuels, yet the promised potential has never lined up with several hard realities. Economically, ethanol producers have required massive government subsidies to survive, yet even federal support hasn't been enough to keep ethanol producers from shuttering their plants due to the sag in demand. In addition, ethanol is less fuel efficient, and therefore more expensive, than petroleum, even with current high prices.

Environmentally, ethanol's benefits are proving to be illusory, too.

A recent comprehensive study conducted by University of California at Santa Barbara, the University of Minnesota and the Technical University of Troyes in France found that the environmental impact of ethanol production is actually 23 to 33 percent more negative than production of petroleum gasoline. When considering the impact on land and water use, as well as the extensive amount of fossil fuels required to grow, process and ship the fuel, it becomes impossible to deny that the environmental negatives of ethanol production significantly outweigh the positives.

It's time to rethink this particular strategy.

It's no secret that the world will have to make the transition from fossil fuels to something more sustainable. That's why we welcome efforts, both public and private, to develop the energy sources of the future. While we may not be entirely certain as to what those sources may be, it's becoming increasingly clear that ethanol isn't going to be one of them.

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