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Ross Nelson, Published January 21 2012

Nelson: Ethanol empire responds

Kevin Skunes of Arthur, N.D., chairman of the North Dakota Corn Utilization Council, reminds me in his latest defense of ethanol (Forum, Dec. 21): The maker of my 2012 snowblower (it’s true, I actually bought something new) explicitly warns against using any gasohol greater than E10. Big ethanol’s wish to force E15 on us in the foreseeable future will likely cause machine problems.

And not just small engines. Skunes recounts a Ricardo study commissioned by the Renewable Fuels Association that, surprise, claims E15 “should not” cause any undue damage to more recent car engines. Forget that the ethanol folks blithely condemn the millions of us who still drive cars older than 1994 models. Is the study’s claim true?

Apparently not, according to congressional testimony given to Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, vice chairman of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Most major auto companies express grave concern about using E15, even in their new cars. Honda says its engines were not designed for E15 with its “higher oxygen, lower energy content and heightened corrosivity.” Chrysler studies indicate E15 will cause greater engine wear and fuel system damage and will void the warranty. BMW agrees about its warranty being voided by E15, and that its engines are specifically made for fuel up to E10.

Who would you go with: a study by someone on big ethanol’s payroll, or the automakers who design their own engines?

Skunes wonders where I get my numbers on ethanol’s energy in/energy out ratio. A May 2006 Christian Science Monitor piece said ethanol’s net energy surplus is modest at best, reinforced by Mother Earth News (April 2008) and National Geographic (October 2007) conclusions of near break-even (1.31:1) ratios. Even Al Gore now calls corn ethanol a mistake.

Ethanol backers’ numbers are similarly weak – see anything by Michael Wang of the Argonne Laboratory and the USDA. The near-doubling of ethanol’s EIEO to 2.3-to-1 that Skunes refers to is merely an accounting artifact. Productivity didn’t double, but a rather arbitrary reassignment of value to ethanol’s byproducts changed the ratio. PeakOil.com deconstructs ethanol’s argument in this instance.

Skunes and other ethanol boosters like local radio talk-show host Joel Heitkamp want to scare us into using ethanol as a solution to our militarism in the Mideast. They have the problem exactly backward. We don’t meddle in the Mideast to protect our oil supply; our oil supply in the Mideast is threatened by our meddling. We’ve never had to fight for the oil, not even in the first Gulf War – we’d merely have bought more oil from Iraq rather than Kuwait. The sole OPEC oil cut we ever got was a result of our meddling in the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Meddling causes oil shortages, not cures them. Oil was $25 a barrel when George W. Bush went to war with Iraq. What is it now?

Nelson is a Fargo postal worker and regular contributor to The Forum’s commentary page. Email nelson.familynd@gmail.com.