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EPA Stirs Debate On Benefits Of Ethanol Fuel Additive

PORK chops would probably cost a little more. So would steak, corn flakes, bread, spaghetti, and maybe even gasoline.

On the other hand, farmers would surely benefit. So would lots of businesses in the Midwest farm belt, including America's largest producer of ethanol, Archer Daniels Midland.

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At issue: a raging debate between the US petroleum industry and corn farmers over the mandatory use of ethanol in gasoline. Most US-made ethanol, also known as grain alcohol, comes from corn.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), citing urban pollution, has proposed a rule to require oil companies to blend ethanol into much of the gasoline used in the United States.

EPA says the ethanol would reduce the amount of ozone created by auto exhaust. It would help clean up the dirty air in places like New York City, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Chicago, San Diego, Milwaukee, Houston, and Hartford, Conn.

Oil companies are outraged by the proposal. But so are some environmental groups, like the Sierra Club. They claim the ethanol mandate could actually lower the quality of air worldwide.

EPA is scheduled to hand down its final ruling on ethanol no later than tomorrow. All sides are lobbying furiously. If EPA favors ethanol, ``this will be litigated very, very strongly,'' predicts Raymond Lewis, president of the American Methanol Institute.

The debate grew out of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, which permit EPA to require the production of cleaner-burning gasoline. EPA can do that by requiring the addition to gasoline of oxygenates, primarily a derivative of methanol, MTBE, or ethanol and its derivative, ETBE.

By adding oxygen to gasoline, EPA hopes to reduce auto emissions that create smog by nearly one-third by the year 2000.

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The controversy arose over EPA's decision, backed by the Clinton White House and agribusiness, to require that 30 percent of the oxygenates be derived from ethanol, rather than methanol. Methanol comes from natural gas.

James Sweeney, chairman of the Department of Engineering-Economic Systems at Stanford University, was asked by the American Petroleum Institute to study the ethanol proposal. In a blistering report issued last month, Professor Sweeney wrote:

``The [EPA] proposal is singularly devoid of benefits, yet imposes substantial costs on society. It is bad public policy and should be rejected.'' Sweeney charged that ``the addition of ethanol or ethanol-based oxygenates to gasoline tends to increase total greenhouse gas emissions.''

A. Blakeman Early, the Sierra Club's Washington director, says: ``There appear to be no environmental benefits from this proposal. Meanwhile, it increases the complexity and cost of the program, and it is illegal. Other than that, it's really a great idea.''

Farmers certainly think it's a great idea. Bryce Neidig, president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation, told Congress that the EPA mandate could put $1.5 billion into the pockets of corn farmers and another $200 million into the coffers of soybean, wheat, and grain sorghum producers.

The positive economic effects of the EPA mandate would ripple throughout the farm region, Mr. Neidig testified. He estimated that the mandate would pump $800 million into farm communities and related industries, like fertilizer manufacturers and tractor dealers.

EPA rejects the Sierra Club's argument that the mandate would not benefit the environment. When the rule was first proposed on Dec. 15, 1993, EPA Administrator Carol Browner said: ``This will bring jobs and investment to farmers and reduce our dependence on imported oil. EPA's proposal would help farmers by boosting demand for ethanol and ETBE while protecting our environment.''

Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy also backs the concept: ``This proposal demonstrates President Clinton's strong commitment to support ethanol.... One of my top priorities is improving farm income, and this initiative will do just that.... At the same time, we will be protecting our environment and im-proving the nation's energy security.''

The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACE3) has taken no position on the ethanol controversy. John DeCicco of ACE3 says any oxygenate will help local air quality, particularly in wintertime.

The problem with ethanol is that currently it is not a very efficient way of adding oxygenates to gasoline, Dr. DeCicco says. Corn is a high-energy-using crop that re-quires cultivation, fertilizer, and drying, all of which create their own pollution. Eventually, ethanol might become a very desirable fuel if more efficient agricultural methods could be developed, DeCicco says. So far those methods are not available.

Meanwhile, methanol from natural gas is cheaper, and apparently less damaging to the global environment.

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