The Ethanol Mistake

by Rep. Meredith Strang Burgess & Sen. Lisa Marrache

Once upon a time, ethanol seemed like a good idea, and Washington took it up with gusto. Starting with the Clean Air Act of 1990, Congress passed a series of environmental laws to promote the use of corn-based ethanol to cut pollution and reduce our reliance on oil. The latest effort, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, mandated that ethanol use in gasoline be increased from nine billion gallons last year to 36 billion in 2022.

Meanwhile, evidence is mounting that ethanol is a failure in virtually every way. It takes more energy to produce it than the fuel provides. Food supplies around the world have been disrupted because so much of the corn crop now goes to ethanol. It costs taxpayers billions of dollars in subsidies at a time when our nation is already $12 trillion in debt. Even environmentalists have turned against it; research shows that ethanol production increases the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.

Here in Maine, as every motorist knows, the 10 percent mixture of ethanol in our gas has reduced mileage per gallon and decreased engine power. But a more serious issue also has emerged: ethanol is impairing engine performance in boats and older engines of various sorts. It requires expensive additives to keep from damaging older fuel systems, and it breaks down in the presence of moisture. The consequences can include engine failure and potentially life-threatening situations. It is so unstable its use is forbidden in aircraft.

In light of these problems, we will introduce a joint resolution in the Legislature urging Congress to consider exempting some grades of motor fuel from ethanol mandates. We went to make available a safe fuel for motorists, pilots, boaters, snowmobilers and others who want to avoid the problems associated with ethanol.

The joint resolution is an outgrowth of LD 1320, An Act to Ensure the Availability of Alcohol-free Motor Fuels. This bill, introduced by the two of us and cosponsored by more than 50 other legislators of both parties, has been carried over to the Legislature’s second session.

In its original form, LD 1320 would have required Maine gas stations to offer high-test, ethanol-free gasoline. After meeting with fuel distributors, it was apparent that this approach was unrealistic. An adequate supply of ethanol-free gas simply doesn’t exist. The legislation will be recast for a more educational mission, so Mainers can take precautions to avoid expensive repairs and learn about disposal options. Once ethanol separates from gas in a container or fuel tank, it becomes toxic waste.

The joint resolution, a separate initiative, will give the entire issue a higher profile. We’re not so naïve as to think a resolution from the Maine Legislature will light a fire under Congress. Ideally, Congress should repeal the ethanol laws because they are doing more harm than good. Our objectives are more modest but will still encounter opposition; the Midwest ethanol lobby has powerful advocates on Capitol Hill and billions of subsidy dollars are at stake. But if Maine sparks other states to act, we could coerce Congress to stand up to the special interests.

Already, the problems and costs associated with ethanol are having an impact at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The agency recently postponed a decision due December 1 to decide whether to increase the blend of ethanol in gasoline to 15 percent. According to a report in The New York Times, entitled “A Growing Disaster,” the ethanol industry recognizes that “without government mandates there can be no sustainable market, hence the push for 15 percent ethanol fuel.”

The National Marine Manufacturers Association, along with other trade groups, warned the EPA that higher ethanol blends could cause serious performance, durability and emissions problems in marine engines. There is evidence that 15 percent ethanol fuel can damage gasoline motors. According to the Times’ story: “Some car engines will most likely tolerate the higher blend of ethanol, but others – especially those in older vehicles – will require costly repairs, a hardship likely to be borne by lower-income Americans.”

Ethanol is a classic example of the law of unintended consequences. According to a 2008 World Bank report, “The most important factor in raising global food prices was the large increase in biofuel production in the U.S. and the European Union.” For Americans, the problem translates to higher grocery prices. For poor African nations, the cost is paid in starvation and malnutrition.

When a fuel source is expensive for taxpayers, bad for the environment and harmful to engines, Congress has no right to mandate its use. We hope the Maine Legislature will agree.

Sen. Lisa Marrache (D-Kennebec) and Rep. Meredith Strang Burgess (R-Cumberland) both serve on the Health and Human Services Committee