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Ethanol industry wants same rubber stamp BP got

Once more, Big Energy is pushing Washington to ram through policy changes without nearly enough study, putting consumers and the environment at risk.

Nope, we're not talking about offshore oil drilling and BP. This time it's the powerful "renewable fuels" industry saying that regulators are needlessly worried and that everything will work out fine.

Desperate because they've built too many ethanol plants, these corn growers and agri-processors are pushing government to increase the amount of ethanol allowed in gasoline by half. If they succeed, the miles per gallon you get from your car or truck will drop. And companies such as Archer Daniels Midland and Exxon will pocket millions more in undeserved taxpayer subsidies.

Hazardous exhaust could increase. And your engine might be damaged.

But Big Ethanol and its paid-for members of Congress are blasting the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy for taking extra time to study the change.

"These federal agencies need to lead, follow or get out of the way," blared Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a South Dakota Democrat who has collected more than $576,000 from agribusiness, according to the nonpartisan research group Center for Responsive Politics.

"Delays in approving higher blends create an unnecessary uncertainty in the ethanol industry," said Sen. John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota (more than $350,000 from agribusiness since 2005).

"Our ethanol industry shouldn't have to continue to be restricted from development," said Rep. Adrian Smith, a Nebraska Republican (more than $300,000 from agribusiness since 2006).

Ethanol is alcohol distilled mainly from corn. Supporters say it's the solution to U.S. dependence on foreign energy. But there are problems. Ethanol itself requires huge amounts of energy to produce. It delivers poorer mileage than pure gasoline. Pesticide- and fertilizer-greedy corn is bad for the environment.

Ethanol production capacity has increased nearly sevenfold since 2000, thanks to a devil's cocktail of government mandates, subsidies, trade barriers and overbuilding. Now the industry wants regulators to increase the allowable blend of ethanol in gasoline from 10 percent to 15 percent, which would effectively boost ethanol sales by 50 percent.

Big Ethanol promises that a 15 percent blend, or "E15," won't hurt your car. There is a "significant and sound body of scientific evidence" showing E15 is safe, says Growth Energy, an ethanol trade group.

That is absolutely right — unless you count the scientific evidence from the people who make cars.

"We're concerned about the emission effects" of 15 percent blends, C. Coleman Jones, biofuel implementation manager for General Motors, said in an interview last week. "But we're also concerned about the durability effects and effects on the American consumer."

Some studies suggest that higher ethanol mixes will add to air pollution by increasing noxious exhaust or compromising emission-control equipment, said Jones, who spoke on behalf of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

E15 might make your "check engine" light come on, he said. It could corrode your fuel pump and hose seals. Inside the engine, he said, "ethanol is not a very good lubricant, and it doesn't protect the cylinder heads." If allowed to compound over time, he added, problems caused by E15 might make some cars stop running.

Putting E15 in the tank will even void the warranty for some models. Small engines, on lawnmowers and leaf blowers, for example, might be even more vulnerable.

"It's not that we're opposed to this," Jones said. "We're trying to find out whether this will work."

So are the regulators. That's why we pay them.

The DOE and the EPA have been studying E15. A decision on the blend for at least some cars had been expected by summer, but last month the agencies said they needed more time.

Ethanol producers are furious. The BP oil spill, they say, is an urgent reason to approve E15 now. The heck with your cylinder heads.

"The stuff in the Gulf has an influence on people's willingness" to promote ethanol, says Mack Shelor, part-owner of Chesapeake Renewable Energy, which wants to build an ethanol plant in Somerset County. "Obviously, there is a lot of politics going on."

As if to prove his point, Iowa's Tom Harkin and several other of Big Ethanol's lackey senators recently sent a letter to President Barack Obama. It said: "In the wake of the worst oil spill in our nation's history, we believe our government should operate with a great sense of urgency to utilize more homegrown biofuels."

Hunh. The worst oil spill in history happened because regulators cut corners and caved in to politically connected corporations. Now Harkin and Co. want the same agencies to give ethanol the same rubber stamp.

jay.hancock@baltsun.com

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