As Wisconsin legislators sift through the science behind ethanol and its proposed use in automobile fuel statewide, some high-profile environmental groups are denouncing the "green" alternative, saying it causes more harm than good.
MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin As Wisconsin legislators sift through the science behind ethanol and its proposed use in automobile fuel statewide, some high-profile environmental groups are denouncing the "green" alternative, saying it causes more harm than good.
The Sierra Club's Wisconsin chapter and the Madison Audubon Society oppose Assembly Bill 15, which would require all gasoline in the state to be blended with 10 percent ethanol. The American Lung Association of Wisconsin has strong reservations. Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce also opposes the measure out of concern that added pollution will force industries they represent to cut back on emissions.
"We should not be mandating more air pollution," said Brett Hulsey, farm policy expert and senior Midwest representative for the Sierra Club. "This is not an energy independence program. It's not a clean-air program. It's an ethanol subsidy program."
Hulsey said the federal government's 51-cent-per-gallon ethanol subsidy should be spent on more efficient technology such as hybrid cars and conservation.
Wisconsin, too, subsidizes ethanol, offering start-up producers 20 cents per gallon. That law expires in June 2006. Hulsey and other critics said that despite its earth-friendly reputation, ethanol contributes to ozone formation, takes at least as much energy to produce as it saves, and causes other problems with soil and water.
Rep. Alvin Ott (R-Forest Junction), chairman of the Assembly Agriculture Committee and co-sponsor of the bill, said he wondered why the Sierra Club didn't speak out at the committee's recent public hearing. He said he was disappointed to not have heard the group's view.
"As we've dealt with this over the years, I've been curious why the environmental groups haven't been more open and supportive of the positive points of ethanol," he said.
Supporters said the ethanol requirement would create jobs, keep money in Wisconsin, result in cleaner air, and create a boon for corn farmers. The Wisconsin Corn Growers Association supports the bill.
Ethanol is produced primarily from corn, but the fermented and distilled sugars can also come from sugarcane, wheat, cheese whey, potatoes and other sources.
Milwaukee County and five surrounding counties have been using ethanol in a reformulated fuel mixture since 1995, per Environmental Protection Agency mandates under the Clean Air Act. The reformulated fuel in the Milwaukee area has other components that, when coupled with ethanol, reduce emissions. The Assembly bill does not require similar changes in the gasoline blend.
The American Lung Association of Wisconsin worried that possible increases in emissions of volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides would be unhealthy.
"We've done some research, and we have a government relations office in Washington that's done a lot on this, and we all come to the same conclusion: It's not necessarily the godsend fuel that we would all like to see emerge," said Dona Wininsky, the association's public policy director. "The air quality benefits are not anywhere as clear-cut as we would like them to be."
Wininsky said the association is still collecting information on the issue.
The Renewable Fuels Association, which represents the ethanol industry, said environmental groups and others opposing ethanol are relying on bad science.
Monte Shaw, a spokesman for the Washington association, said he rejects any scientific findings that show ethanol increases nitrogen oxide levels.
"We've never said ethanol is perfect fuel," Shaw said. "Ethanol has several major benefits compared to 100 percent petroleum. There's no way you can argue to me with a straight face that using 100 percent petroleum is better for the environment than displacing some of it with ethanol."
Al Shea, administrator of the state Department of Natural Resources' division of air and waste, told the committee that the bill will have a "marginal adverse impact on ozone formation in the state."
His report to the committee came days after a draft DNR report obtained by the Journal Sentinel listed several environmental concerns about the bill, stating that it could increase other airborne toxins -- aside from volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides -- such as acetaldehyde and peroxyacyl nitrate, respiratory irritants at high levels of exposure. DNR experts suggested that several measures would have to be implemented to offset some of the increased pollution.
Authors of the DNR report also raised concerns about the availability and price of non-reformulated fuel for exempt vehicles. The bill allows motorists to buy conventional gas for motorcycles, boats, and other small engines.
Shea told the committee that the draft report hadn't received approval from managers and was incorrect.
Ott said the committee had not yet set a date to vote on the bill.
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