Québec Abandons Ethanol

Commentary, Energy, Frontier Centre, Quebec, Worth A Look

No sooner than in May 2005, the then Ministry of Agriculture, Yvon Vallières, gave its approval to build the first corn-grain ethanol plant, in Varennes, “for obvious economic and ecological reasons”. Two years later, still for obvious environmental reasons, the Government backs out on the issue and swears that this won’t happen again: no other corn-grain ethanol plant will be allowed to be built in Québec. On Radio-Canada’s tv channel show called “Enquête1” yesterday night, Natural Resources minister Claude Béchard promised that the Varennes plant would be the one and only one of that kind. “We must find some other solutions”, said the Minister. Its colleague from the Ministry of the Environnement, Line Beauchamp, agrees with him because of the “environmental impacts linked to intensive corn production”. “As to what we can do, this is a first and a last”, said Philippe Cannon, Environment Ministers’ spokesperson to La Presse.

This amazing turn-face seems to have come from a dispute between the Ministries of Environment and Agriculture, but this happens at the same time as many voices in the World are opposed to the use of corn as fuel. Because this choice has not only been made in Québec but elsewhere. Specially in the US.

One must say that this passion for corn is not harmless. Experts are talking of soil depletion caused by intensive culture, water contamination, large-scale use of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers, increase of food cost and reduction of corn surplus usually that used to be sent to famished countries.

“This is simple absurd, murderous”, even said Jean Ziegler, special report person from UN on food rights in the Enquête reportage. “This means that in the North of Ethiopia, trucks from the World Food Program don’t come anymore and (…) people die, added Mr. Ziegler.

Less GHG?

So, in this case, why do so many governments want to force fuel distributors to include ethanol in the fuel? For many reasons, one being the help to farmers, who profit widely from this boom, and others being to fight against climate changes because some claim that ethanol reduce emissions from cars.

There again, ethanol benefits are not as important as what the Québec Government pretends. Sunday, in a letter published in La Presse, Environment Minister Line Beauchamp pretended that the introduction of 5 % ethanol in fuel sold in Québec, mandatory by 2012, will “reduce 780 000 tons/year GHG emissions”.

Greg Rideout, Environment Canada Research Director on toxic emissions, does not agree. Last Spring, the CBC tv network published the conclusions of one of his studies: there are no difference between the emissions which are produced by a car running with or without 10 % ethanol. According to him, adding ethanol would reduce carbon monoxyde but this would be cancelled by an increase of ozone emissions, which causes smog.

Household waste

What can we do, then to reach Québec goals (5 % ethanol in 2012) and Ottawa (5 % in 2010 ?) Use everybody’s waste, it seems.

Called cellulose ethanol (or second-generation ethanol), this biofuel is made from household waste and agricultural and forest waste. Pilot-projects are now being done a bit everywhere in Occident, including Québec where enterprises like Enerkem are trying to build a large-scale market for this technology.

Last June, the Prime Minister Jean Charest announced 25 million $ subsidies for research on cellulose ethanol. A Research Chair has been created at Sherbrooke University and two pilot plants are being built in the same region.

“(With cellulose ethanol), we are in another world, said the Environment Minister, Line Beauchamp to La Presse last Sunday. We really are talking sustainable development.”

Neither Natural Resources Minister’s nor Agriculture Ministers’ offices have responded to La Presse calls, yesterday.