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CHICAGO -- Ethanol has long been touted as the Great Green Hope for Midwestern farmers, a renewable fuel source that provides an expanded market for corn and a practical use for farm wastes.
But as an energy bill that will boost ethanol production moves through Congress, the green fuel is under attack in some quarters. Environmentalists and free-market advocates say the pollution-control benefits of the fuel additive are minimal at best and production costs are out of line. It may even take more energy to produce a gallon of ethanol than is in the fuel, according to the Chicago Daily Herald.
"The science isn't in yet on whether you put more energy into making ethanol than it actually produces," says Sierra Club spokeswoman Debbie Boger.
Besides the coal or natural gas required to fuel the energy-consuming distillation process, the raw materials of corn and farm waste have to be grown, fertilized, and gleaned by multiple tractor passes over a field. Even the Illinois Corn Growers Association, a group which has lobbied enthusiastically for ethanol, says the amount of energy it takes to grow and refine a gallon of ethanol is three-fourths the amount of energy that ethanol will produce as fuel. Some independent estimates are higher.
High production costs lead some to say ethanol will never be viable as a fuel on the open market, no matter how many start-up subsidies it receives, the report said.
But what about the environmental benefits? Ethanol supporters say it's a cleaner fuel than gasoline, but that, too, is questionable. Ethanol added to gas does reduce carbon monoxide emissions in winter, but it also leads to more evaporation in summer. That contributes to smog, Chicago's biggest air pollution problem.
Colleen Sarna, a global warming expert with the Illinois Sierra Club, says ethanol and other "green" fuels are mere distractions from the crux of the air pollution problem: fuel economy.
"We need to be working toward automobiles that go farther on a gallon of gas," she said.
That's one reason the Sierra Club doesn't support ethanol subsidies in the Energy Policy Act of 2003, a bill currently before the U.S. Senate. The bill would more than double ethanol production over the next 10 years by mandating increased use of the additive in gasoline in all 50 states. It would require an additional 5 billion gallons of ethanol in the national gasoline supply, to be phased in over 10 years, and would provide $14 billion in tax breaks, mostly in the form of rebates to gas stations that sell ethanol-blended gasoline.
An amendment by California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, which would have allowed governors to opt out of the program, was defeated.
Currently, gas stations in Illinois receive a federal rebate of 5.4 cents per gallon on their sales of gasohol, which is a 9:1 mixture of gasoline and ethanol. The state also offers a tax incentive, refunding 30 percent of the state's portion of sales tax on gasohol sales.