Stumbling Towards Green Fuel
- [There have been some encouraging articles posted here recently about the
alleged virtues of ethanol for fuel. Heres the other side of the story.]
STUMBLING TOWARDS GREEN FUEL
Environmentalists Are Skeptical About Government Investment In Ethanol
by EVE KRAKOW
From Nov. 2 to 4, representatives from government and industry are meeting
in Quebec City for the World Summit on Ethanol in Transportation to discuss
ways to promote the use of ethanol fuel. Last week, the government of Canada
launched a three-year, $100-million Ethanol Expansion Program, a component
of its Climate Change Plan for Canada. The government's ultimate target: to
have 35 per cent of our gasoline contain 10 per cent ethanol by 2010.
Derived from agricultural crops, ethanol burns cleaner than gasoline, offers
the same engine performance and can be used in blends of up to 10 per cent
in all cars built since the 1970s. It's been around for years, but now the
government is allocating more money for its development as an alternative
fuel. Sounds great, no?
But ethanol is not a panacea for our problems, environmentalists warn. Real
greenhouse gas reductions depend on how the ethanol is produced. Plus,
subsidies are still required to make it commercially viable. They say that
government money would be much better spent supporting proven alternatives -
such as public transportation.
"On average, it takes a public transit user 40 years to consume the energy
that a motorist consumes in four," says Normand Parisien, executive director
of Transport 2000.
Ethanol fuel is not a new technology; in fact, ethanol blends have been
available at a number of gas stations across Canada (and about five in
Montreal) for years. In Canada, ethanol is traditionally made from the
starch in wheat and corn. Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), the federal
agency overlooking our natural assets, estimates that using a 10 per cent
ethanol blend in your car reduces greenhouse gas emissions by three per cent
compared to conventional gasoline.
But not everyone agrees with these figures. "The study by NRCan was severely
criticized for overlooking certain elements of the energy chain required to
produce ethanol," explains Steven Guilbeault, director of Greenpeace Quebec
and the climate change campaigner for Greenpeace Canada.
Emerging technologies to produce cellulose-based ethanol are more promising.
These would use agricultural residues such as cereal grain straw, corn
stalks and cobs or even waste from the forestry sector. Supported by the
Canadian government, the Ottawa-based Iogen Corporation has built a
large-scale demonstration plant using this technology. NRCan estimates that
10 per cent blends using cellulose-based ethanol reduce greenhouse gas
emissions by eight per cent.
Yet it will be some time before this new technology is widespread. An
ethanol plant slated for construction in Varennes, Quebec, would still use
mostly corn. Moreover, until ethanol can hold its own over gas prices,
government subsidies are required. A spokesperson for Les Pétroles Sonic,
which sells ethanol blends at about 100 gas stations across Quebec, says
they offer only a five per cent blend to keep it profitable. They're still
waiting for the Quebec government to implement a promise to exempt the
ethanol portion of gasoline blends from taxes.
Expensive and untested
"Ultimately, you want to be able to produce ethanol at a cost that's
competitive with gasoline, on an unsubsidized basis," says Bill Cruickshank,
a bioenergy research and development specialist at the CANMET Energy
Technology Centre in Ottawa. He says this is one objective of the NRCan
program he manages supporting the research at Iogen.
Alain Lefebvre, director of the hydrocarbons development branch of the
Quebec Ministry of Natural Resources, Wildlife and Parks, is a member of the
summit's organizing committee. He argues that in light of our Kyoto
commitments, it's in Quebec's interest to develop ethanol fuel. "If we look
at the technologies currently available that can be easily applied, ethanol
fuel is a logical choice. I agree that the environmental gains are modest,
but when you convert that into megatonnes, it's still substantial."
Others still disagree. They urge the government to invest in electric cars
and public transit, and force car manufacturers to build cleaner-burning
engines. "I think it's imprudent, if not misleading, to put a lot of money
into ethanol as part of our Kyoto commitment plan," says Guilbeault. "What
if we realize, four or five years down the road, that we've invested
hundreds of millions of dollars into a technology that doesn't deliver?"
José Etcheverri, research and policy analyst for the David Suzuki
Foundation's climate change program, qualifies ethanol as, at best, a
remedial solution. "Too often, remedial actions tend to absorb resources to
the detriment of preventive measures."
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