Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The scourge of 'green' fuel

Surprise, surprise.

Ethanol, touted from sea to shining sea as a 'green' fuel, has a dirty secret. CNSNews, June 13:
Call it green pollution. The ethanol industry, which is marketed as environmentally friendly and has been called a "cornerstone of America's energy policy," is dirtying air and water supplies across the heartland, according to a Cybercast News Service investigation.

And industry watchers said pollution is going to get worse.

"There seems to be this mad rush toward expansion of the alternative fuels industry without sufficient due diligence," said Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies (NACAA).

[...] A Cybercast News Service analysis of EPA records found 73 biorefineries - more than 60 percent of those operating - were cited by state or federal agencies for environmental violations in the last three years. The vast majority involve state or federal clean air laws.

"They've brought the enforcement actions against a number of ethanol companies and refineries for essentially sidestepping the law," said Frank O'Donnell, president of the non-partisan Clean Air Watch. "Ethanol refineries have the potential to pollute quite a bit."

Most of the companies have not been fined by state or federal government agencies, though some of the biggest ownership groups have been forced to pay millions for cleanup and anti-pollution devices.

"Ethanol has been dramatically oversold as a green energy source," said O'Donnell.
I don't know how I missed this, since a quick Google search reveals that the ethanol pollution problem has been known for a long time. For example:
  • May 3, 2002 -- EPA Finds Worrisome Levels Of Toxic Air Pollutants At Ethanol Plants
  • September 2000 -- Does Ethanol Use Result in More Air Pollution?
  • 1997 -- Ethanol Causes Pollution, Too, Argonne Scientists Say
An NPR story from April of this year shows that many environmentalists are not very happy with this situation. There are cleaner ways to make ethanol, but right now corn is the most economically viable source. As long as this remains so, this may be another case of the cure being worse than the disease. Here is an extended quote from the NPR story:
Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club's Global Warming and Energy Program, and Elizabeth Marshall, senior economist at the World Resources Institute, share their concerns:

Corn Vs. Cellulosic

Corn ethanol is presently the only commercially viable means of ethanol fuel production. It's made by distilling fermented simple sugars derived from corn. The problem is, it's still an environmentally taxing process.

"With ethanol, the devil is in the details," says Dan Becker. "There are ways of making it that are quite clean, but that's not the way we're doing it."

Becker backs cellulosic ethanol. If researchers can streamline what's still an experimental process, then ethanol could be made from a variety of plant materials.

The benefit of that, Elizabeth Marshall says, is that cellulosic ethanol production would allow farmers to grow crops that work in their area, rather than forcing corn on lands that are not well-suited to support it.

A Decrease in Greenhouse Gases?

Some environmentalists also question whether corn ethanol will ultimately help combat global warming. Dan Becker says it's necessary to take into account the energy expended to produce the fuel.

"The way we make ethanol now," Becker says, involves "seven passes over the field with a diesel tractor, heating the corn to convert it into ethanol, and transporting the fuel in diesel-guzzling trucks."

Marshall estimates that producing 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol – less than half of Bush's projected goal for 2017 – would increase greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production by almost 8 percent.

Furthermore, Becker states, ethanol has a lower energy content than gasoline, so to meet the same energy demands, more gallons of ethanol would have to be produced.

A problem often cited with ethanol is that, when the production process is taken into account, it will ultimately release more greenhouse gas than gasoline. Becker says more recent studies show that's not the case. Overall, he says, corn ethanol isn't a loser but, "it's not a big winner, either. The best thing that we can say about ethanol is that it is not gasoline – and that is damning with faint praise."

The Environmental Footprint

Elizabeth Marshall worries that attempting to curb greenhouse gases with increased corn ethanol production will ultimately come at the cost of the country's water and soil.

"Soil erosion, nutrient runoff, and pulling new land into corn production are all concerns," she says.

To meet the increased demand for ethanol, many farmers want to bring into use lands that are currently protected. Marshall also predicts that higher corn prices will give farmers incentive to revert to environmentally unfriendly practices.

Farming's environmental footprint has always been a concern, says Marshall. "Increased demand for ethanol will only exacerbate existing problems."
Back to the CNSNews article, there's at least one group that sees ethanol pollution through rose-colored glasses: The National Corn Growers Association. Referring to association spokesman Geoff Cooper:
Cooper said any problems with pollution are offset by the environmental benefits of renewable fuels being used in U.S. vehicles.
In other words, the polluted community surrounding the ethanol plant should be proud that it is sacrificing itself for the greater good of the planet.