Ethanol’s Dirty Little Secrets

Commentary, Transportation, Frontier Centre

How do you convince consumers that what’s bad for you is good for you? You feed them a load of bull, and hope they don’t catch on. So it is with the Ontario and federal governments, which are spinning their pro-ethanol campaigns as consumer-friendly solutions to our energy and environmental problems.

Ontario’s new ethanol pamphlet is a masterpiece of creative propaganda. The pamphlet is to be distributed at gas stations between now and January, when gas containing 5-per-cent ethanol – that’s the law – arrives at a pump near you. The ad features a little girl in a pink sundress. She’s frolicking in a green field and carrying a butterfly net. “Feel better about filling up,” the ad says. The inside pages promise that “Cleaner air is on its way” because putting corn-based ethanol in your tank will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by some 800,000 tonnes a year.

Sounds good so far. Leaving aside the greenhouse gas claim, which is probably exaggerated and might be entirely bogus (more on this in a moment), the pamphlet is misleading by omission. Nowhere does it say your car’s fuel economy will suffer because of the ethanol content. And guess what? Ethanol is generally not cheaper than gas – sometimes it’s far more expensive, as it was in the summer – so the drop in fuel economy won’t be offset by lower prices at the pump.

Nor does the pamphlet tell you the whole truth about the 5-per-cent content. The figure is an annual provincial average. Since huge swathes of Ontario, including Northern Ontario and some cities, are too far from the plants that can blend gas with ethanol, the mix will probably be consumed largely in the Greater Toronto Area. To maintain the 5-per-cent provincial average, drivers in the GTA might be forced to buy fuel with a higher ethanol content, perhaps as much as 10 per cent. That means GTA drivers will be paying even more to keep their cars on the road.

How much more? In a cover story called The Ethanol Myth, the October issue of Consumer Reports magazine provides a clue. Its editors tested two Chevy Tahoe SUVS, one which ran on gas, the other with a blend of 85-per-cent ethanol and 15-per-cent gas (known as E85). The average fuel economy of the E85 Tahoe was 27 per cent less than that of the gas-powered version. The driving range fell from 440 miles to about 300 miles. Acceleration also suffered. Science provides the answer. The energy content of ethanol is far less than that of gas, so you have to burn more ethanol to go the same distance.

Now, assume you are a driver in the GTA and have to fill up with a blend of 10-per-cent ethanol and 90-per-cent gas (or E10) starting in January. Based on the Consumer Reports calculations on E85, algebra says your fuel economy will suffer by about 3 per cent. That’s not a lot. But it could be more depending on the volatility of ethanol prices. And it will certainly hurt you in the wallet if you do a lot of driving. Ontario’s brochure doesn’t highlight this, of course.

But you’re supposed to feel good about the environmental benefits. While there is no doubt that burning ethanol emits less smog-causing pollutants and greenhouse gases than burning gasoline, several respected scientists have shown that making ethanol is an energy-intensive process that may actually increase emissions if you measure the energy inputs from the corn field (fertilizer, diesel fuel to power tractors and the like) to the retailer.

Ontario has a problem of its own that can only detract from the claims that ethanol is good for children and other living things: It has created local demand that cannot be met by local supply.
With the recent opening of Suncor’s ethanol plant in Sarnia, the province has the capacity to produce about 400 million litres a year of ethanol. The 5-per-cent ethanol content rule will require about 750 million litres a year. The shortfall will have to be imported by truck, trains and ships, sometimes from great distances. The last time anyone looked, trucks, trains and ships still burned fuel. You can bet the government doesn’t include these emissions in its calculations. Ontario is also importing corn to feed the ethanol plants.

If burning ethanol were the greatest thing since the elimination of leaded gas, you would think environmental groups would be cheering its arrival. They are not. Canadian environmental groups, such as the Pembina Institute, neither endorse nor condemn the fuel. In the United States, the Sierra Club has considered suing ethanol factories for violations to the Clean Air Act.

Thanks to Consumer Reports and other publications, Americans are starting to get the message that ethanol is a dead loss for consumers, a disaster for taxpayers because of the endless billions in subsidies and, at best, of marginal benefit to the environment. Yet in Canada, you will not find a politician who will even discuss ethanol’s shortcomings. Ontario is diving head-first into an ethanol market of its own creation. The feds are next, with a national 5-per-cent renewable fuels (read: ethanol) requirement slated for 2010. Suncor and the corn farmers are beaming at your expense.