Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for May 15th, 2009

The Great Ethanol Scam

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A search of my blog shows I have posted about ethanol 21 times – none of them favourably. Perhaps these two will give the flavour to new readers. Now Business Week turns up the heat a bit.

Not only is ethanol proving to be a dud as a fuel substitute but there is increasing evidence that it is destroying engines in large numbers

It is of course written for an American audience. The basic thesis is that when cars fail – especially fuel pumps – the fuel quality should be tested. Because the amount of ethanol blended into the gasoline is critical, and that is not tested often enough.  Canadian readers are not so much at risk since we do not have the same mandated ethanol content  as the US: the proposal here is for only 5% and the damage occurs at higher percentages. And often the failures have been found with ethanol much higher than intended. 

But I have disliked the idea of ethanol ever since,as an analyst with the BC Ministry of Energy I got lobbied regularly by the industry rep. Actually they all did that – but the ethanol guy seemed particularly persistent. I don’t suppose I was the only civil servant he talked to – and some may even have had some level of influence on decision making. Fortunately most of the lead on the issue was taken by the Ministry of the Environment – and they wanted biofuel to be made from forest waste (of which BC had a lot then – and was still using beehive burners to get rid of it) not grain. No one was producing ethanol from that source then and I am not sure if anyone has made it commercially viable even now.

What I did hear from people in the auto business were stories about people with older cars who used ethanol to get an AirCare pass – and then had trouble because the solvent action of the additive in the system loosened lots of old crud (that is the technical term they used) and bunged up the fuel filter. Not a big problem to be sure – unlike these poor souls identified by BW with fuel pumps actually failing.

The US political system – and to some extent ours – has been undermined steadily by lobbyists. Even now it is difficult for President Obama to get the much needed greenhouse gas legislation through congress because of the pressure of special interests. The only way to get legislation through there is to allow for changes. Our parliamentary system is less malleable – but still subject to pressure. Ethanol – as BW lists – is not good for the environment (either air quality or ghg) nor has it reduced US imports of oil. But large amounts of money have been diverted into a few pockets – agribusiness rather than farmers – and much of that could have been much better spent. But the worst effect is created by the need for presidential hopefuls to get through the Iowa caucuses early in their primary campaign. Which is when they have to take the ethanol pledge if they want to get onto the ticket. They grow a lot of corn in Iowa. And as we have seen here recently, self interest trumps general well being every time.

Anyway, I no longer buy my gas at Husky – which is, as far as I know, the only local source of ethanol blended fuel here.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 15, 2009 at 12:32 pm