Ethanols Backers Get Gassed Out

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Energy: A fortune was spent on ethanol development last year when gas prices were in the stratosphere. Now a lesson has been learned: Worshiping the false god of ethanol carries a high price.

A funny thing happened on the way to all the green profits that were supposed to be in the offing thanks to high prices at the gas pump.

As the New York Times reported this week, ethanol, "just recently a savior" as the Times headline put it, has been found sorely lacking in its much-touted miraculous powers to heal America's energy woes.

Corn ethanol plants "are shutting down virtually every week." An alternative energy trade group says at least 10 of the nation's 150 ethanol firms have closed some 24 plants in three months, with a dozen other companies in distress.

Little more than a year after the Democratic Congress passed legislation launching a massive national effort to convert farm crops and agricultural wastes into auto fuel, it's become clear that the production deadlines aimed at greenifying your local gas station can't and won't be met.

The many investors who were tripping all over themselves to finance biofuel plants last year are finding that going green can mean losing lots of green.

Congress had a grand plan: It would double corn ethanol use by 2015. And by 2022, 21 billion gallons of ethanol and biofuels would be made from formerly useless stuff, ranging from corn stubble to switchgrass to municipal waste.

But reality has hit like a ton of corn stalks. The inescapable facts are that corn prices remain at a market-set high, and converting the corn alternative cellulose into liquid fuel is prohibitively expensive.

And there are other problems. For one, corn ethanol gets worse mileage than gasoline. For another, ethanol's corrosiveness means it can't be shipped through regular pipelines like gasoline.

Faced with all this, investors betting on green seek a kind of biofuel breakthrough that would make it possible to surmount the current obstacles to converting organic waste and food to ethanol.

And the federal government has matched their wagers.

Last year, the Department of Energy agreed to spend tens of millions of dollars to see if a soil-based anaerobic bacterium classified as the "Q Microbe," discovered some years ago in the Massachusetts woods by a microbiologist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, can turn feedstocks like corn stover, wheat straw and sorghum into ethanol.

Everything from food scraps, lumber waste, rice straw, yard trimmings, even dumped furniture and debris from construction sites can become the raw material of cellulosic ethanol, the DOE and the Department of Agriculture have said. The problem is, no one has yet used the process to make fuel that can compete with oil in either cost or quantity.

After all the pain of those high gas prices of the recent past, the American people would rather depend on what they know works: good old black gold. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., this week conceded the political realities when he declared that "the ship has already sailed" in regard to drilling for new domestic oil.

Congress banned oil and natural gas exploration for 26 years over most of the Outer Continental Shelf, but it let the ban expire last fall amid a public outcry after oil prices peaked at $147 a barrel.

Will the Obama Administration now permit drilling? The new president seems to be putting in place a foot-dragging exercise on his campaign promise to provide drilling leases.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has announced fact-finding initiatives on drilling by the Minerals Management Service and the U.S. Geological Survey, as well as four regional meetings. Hand in hand with these moves are plans for wind, wave and tidal energy offshore programs to accompany the drilling.

The new administration, meanwhile, is getting aggressive on the environmentalist front, canceling 77 oil and gas leases near Utah national parks, letting California and perhaps 13 more states increase auto emission restrictions, and dropping a Bush Administration appeal of a court decision on mercury emissions.

Economic and national security alike demand less dependence on foreign oil.

But energy alternatives must work. Nuclear power, hydrogen and our own oil all look more hopeful than ethanol and magic microbes.