- - Tuesday, August 27, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

A media campaign is underway to malign a cleaner, cheaper challenger to gasoline’s virtual monopoly on transportation fuel. If it succeeds, this campaign will deprive American drivers of the next generation of high-octane, energy-efficient vehicles, and subject all of us to ever increasing levels of toxic air pollution.

The questionable position of gasoline’s monopoly is evident in the hackneyed arguments that have been trotted out against ethanol. Take, for instance, an Aug. 16 Wall Street Journal editorial that supported its claim that “ethanol is a bust” with an attack on Congress’ over-optimistic 2007 predictions about the availability of cellulosic biofuel. No matter that cellulosic biofuel is altogether different from plentiful and inexpensive ethanol, and no matter that EPA can cut cellulosic blending requirements in 2016.

Or take the same paper’s Aug. 20 editorial that reserves its first attack for an ethanol tax credit that expired in 2012 (and in any event compensated gasoline refiners — not ethanol or corn producers). The credit is dead, but ethanol is alive and well, representing 10 percent of nearly every gallon of gasoline sold in America. This is not the result of any legislative mandate but the fact that ethanol is a cheaper source of valuable octane — much cheaper (and less toxic) than refined octane from oil. With sensible coordination between regulators, auto manufacturers and refiners, the octane (and thus ethanol content) of fuel can and should be much higher.

In fact, ethanol use would likely rise to the neighborhood of 30 percent if EPA would ensure the availability of such fuel in the market. The car companies have indicated their support for such a high-octane, high-ethanol fuel. Over time, it could become standard by something like the successful transition to unleaded fuel. Now is the time to begin: Stringent new efficiency standards will demand new vehicle technologies, which in turn will require cleaner octane to avoid the increased pollution that would result from current oil-derived octane.

Some have argued that if ethanol enjoys all the benefits its proponents boast, it shouldn’t need protective regulations. This overlooks the oil companies that profit from putting their own harmful aromatic hydrocarbons into gasoline to do what ethanol could achieve less expensively and less toxically.

Oil refiners are not likely to dilute their own product willingly, no matter how much better ethanol is for human and environmental health, vehicle performance, and national security, because — unlike their stationary source counterparts — they are under no obligation to reduce the toxicity of emissions caused by oil. In short, refiners have no incentive to clean up their act and surrender the silent subsidy they have enjoyed for decades — a free pass with regard to air toxics.

The recent charges against ethanol have been refuted many times over. Rather than raising the price of gasoline, economists have found that ethanol has already saved consumers billions at the pump. And Congress has already guarded against the possibility that renewable fuel requirements will, as an Aug. 18 USA Today editorial said, “pump money from your pocket.” If gasoline consumption ever falls so low that the ethanol mandate “would severely harm the economy,” EPA can waive it.

Food producers’ complaints about higher food costs due to ethanol blending don’t make sense. Increased corn productivity has more than covered the use of corn for ethanol. In any event, ethanol does not use the protein in the corn crop, which is still available for high value animal feed. Indeed, this year’s large anticipated corn crop, combined with reduced demand from abroad, would seriously cut farmer incomes but for the separate demand for domestic ethanol.

Ethanol’s opponents haven’t come up with any new arguments, and they fail miserably to recognize why ethanol is being used in fuel to begin with: It is the cleanest and cheapest source of octane available, which makes it essential to the reduction of CO2 and other pollutants, and to the development of the next generation of engines.

C. Boyden Gray has served as White House counsel, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, special envoy for Eurasian energy and special envoy for European Union affairs. “Arbitrary and Capricious” runs monthly.