Backing away from ethanol makes sense – Editorial

Sunday, November 11, 2007
Quebec’s decision to back away from developing a corn-based ethanol industry in the province represents a rare victory of common sense over political expediency. Corn producers probably won’t like it, but everyone else – including environmentalists – should be pleased.
It was just over two years ago that Yvon Vallières, the agriculture minister of the day, announced with much fanfare the construction of Quebec’s first ethanol-processing plant, in Varennes. From the way the politicians were talking back then, you would have thought that ethanol would be our salvation, rescuing us cleanly from an unhealthy addiction to polluting fossil fuels. The economic and environmental reasons for going into ethanol production, Vallières said at the time, were “obvious.” Well, apparently not that obvious. Adapting thousands of additional acres of productive farmland to grow corn, it turns out, makes little sense, economically or environmentally.
In fact, some studies indicate once you factor in the energy used to produce pesticides and fertilizer, run farm machinery, transport and process the crop, it takes more energy to produce a gallon of corn-based ethanol than that gallon of corn-based ethanol can provide.
And while corn is certainly a renewable resource, farmland isn’t. Every acre that’s used to meet our energy needs is an acre that can’t be used to meet our nutritional needs. In the long run, that can only push up grocery bills, which hardly sounds like a sensible tradeoff.
As well, intensive cultivation of one crop isn’t a particularly sound agricultural practice. It drains the soil of nutrients, and requires large amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which add to the pollution of our waterways.
Even more damningly, it seems ethanol does little to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. According to an Environment Canada study cited in a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. program last spring, a car burning regular gasoline produces exactly the same amount of such emissions as a car running on fuel that’s 10-per-cent ethanol.
So even if the stuff could be efficiently produced, from sugar cane, say, or cellulose, it’s quite possible that ethanol doesn’t have any role to play in meeting our energy needs at all.
Unfortunately, Quebec hasn’t entirely abandoned its ethanol dreams. It’s retaining its ridiculous requirement that all gasoline be five-per-cent ethanol by 2012, for example, and pushing ahead with the Varennes plant. It’s also subsidizing pilot projects to produce ethanol from cellulose and household waste.
Instead of flirting with absurd five-per-cent solutions, Quebec should put its efforts into conservation.
The way to reduce emissions is to reduce use, and higher fuel prices and tougher efficiency standards will accomplish that. Corn belongs on your plate, not in your gas tank.

© The Gazette (Montreal) 2007

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