Problem? What Problem?
Following my recent post What You Aren’t Being Told About Ethanol and Corrosion, someone made a comment that gets to the root of why many ethanol proponents mistakenly see me as an enemy of ethanol (indeed, one of the Top 10). The person said that if there are problems related to our expanding usage of ethanol, we shouldn’t bash ethanol, we should fix those problems.
But how do you fix a problem? First you have to acknowledge that there is a problem. I write articles pointing to issues that I view as problems. The other side often denies the problem, as many did over the ethanol corrosion post. I posted results from an Underwriters Laboratories controlled study showing that some materials currently used in our fuel delivery systems are incompatible with higher blends of ethanol such as E15. Some of the responses were personal attacks upon me, and complete denial that the study showed any problems at all. Thus, the only way to convince people that we have a problem that needs to be fixed is to continue to argue the point — and this amounts to ethanol bashing in the eyes of many ethanol proponents.
In the case of the UL study, I want the ethanol industry to take a responsible stand such as “We recognize that UL has identified some material incompatibilities in existing fuel delivery systems. We propose the following plan to ensure that fuel systems don’t begin to leak and cause safety or environmental problems….” In fact, some ethanol proponents did just that. They agreed that the UL studies identified an issue that needs to be addressed, so let’s propose a fix and move on.
Learning from the 1950’s Auto Industry
But the more common industry position has been to assure us — based on the experiences of many drivers — that ethanol use causes no problems. Of course I could provide testimonials from many drivers who have driven without seat belts for years, “proving” that it is safe to do so. Think of the money the auto industry could have saved if they had kept to the status quo of the 1950’s where seat belts were the exception. But if I am going to advocate this position, I certainly better do a thorough investigation to identify and quantify the risks. I might find that some people have indeed reported negative consequences from not wearing seat belts.
The ethanol lobby would be more credible if they spent their time trying to really quantify and mitigate risks, instead of providing testimonials and assurances that there are no risks. As someone pointed out, the EPA waiver that allows E15 in some vehicles investigated whether E15 would cause emissions to increase, not whether any materials in these cars would suffer shortened lifetimes due to E15 exposure. Why else do you think automakers would sue to stop the introduction of E15 in older vehicles if they didn’t think there might be problems? But the ethanol industry has represented the E15 waiver as a green light saying that there are no risks from moving to E15. They simply ignore reports of ethanol-induced maintenance problems from ethanol blends, profiting while pushing increased costs onto others.
Thus, I think we have a problem that needs to be fixed rather than ignored or covered up.
If you try to look at this objectively, you might see that my posts on ethanol are designed to highlight problems so that they might be fixed. True, one way of fixing these problems would be to just stop ethanol usage altogether (which would also introduce problems), but that is not the position I advocate. I think ethanol can make important long-term contributions toward weaning us away from fossil fuels in a sustainable way, but current ethanol policies risk a huge public backlash and the eventual collapse of the industry.
Too many of our ethanol policies are based more on politics than science. I believe many people within the ethanol industry have a short-sighted and selfish view that has certainly worked to funnel a lot of money into the industry, but has also created a growing number of critics. Some day they will either tell their grandchildren about how they helped to create a sustainable, thriving industry, or they will shamefully admit that they were once part of an ethanol experiment that failed due to many costly, negative consequences that they denied to the end.
The purpose of this preamble was supposed to set the stage for an article that digs deeper into the question of taxpayer-subsidized ethanol exports. But the preamble was long enough to stand as its own article, so the next article will delve into the question of subsidized exports and the ethanol industry’s response. Once again, this is a problem that needs to be fixed, but the ethanol industry denies that it is happening. In fact, many have claimed that the practice is illegal. As I will show in the next post, it is certainly not illegal, and the ethanol industry is turning a blind eye to the practice.