Ethanol effort misdirected

Ethanol use is itself a paradox of renewable energy.

Last week, Gov. Tim Pawlenty laid out a proposal to make Minnesota the “renewable fuel capital of America” – a plan calling for more ethanol in gasoline and less gasoline use in government vehicles. While Pawlenty’s heart is in the right place, his efforts to appear “green friendly” overshadow some important considerations, both economic and environmental.

The most problematic of the proposals is the mandate that gas sold in Minnesota contain at least 20 percent ethanol – double the current 10 percent. Unfortunately, this requires significant manufacturing changes and new warranties on cars – and clearly not all Minnesotans would even be able to afford such a vehicle by 2010.

Ethanol use is itself a paradox of renewable energy. While it is distilled from corn, a major Minnesota crop, and clearly a renewable resource, the distilling process requires burning fossil fuels to the point where it might cancel out ethanol’s use in the first place. Add to that the unknown environmental factors associated with ethanol emissions – such as a possible detrimental effect on the ozone layer – and ethanol starts to lose its eco-friendly charm.

Pawlenty’s proposal also calls for the government to cut gasoline use by 50 percent and petroleum-based diesel by 25 percent by 2015, and to instead buy more hybrid vehicles and use more “E85” – 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline.

Minnesota is already the only state that requires ethanol in gasoline and that mandates biodiesel (diesel fuel based on soybeans, another Minnesota crop) use. One of Pawlenty’s arguments is that increasing these products’ use will have a huge positive impact on Minnesota’s farmers. But subsidizing farmers does not alone justify the use of ethanol.

Pawlenty’s efforts to help farmers and use renewable energy are laudable, but he should instead focus his efforts on promoting hybrid vehicles that use electric and gas power – such as his suggestion that these vehicles always be allowed to use the high-occupancy lanes on freeways. The state should not put so much stock into a fuel as problematic as ethanol.