Opinions on ethanol shared at Pa. forum

January 31, 2006|by DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Depending on which expert was speaking, ethanol produced from corn will be either an important component of an alternative fuels strategy, or a product that takes more energy to make than it generates and depletes farmland.

David Morris and Tadeusz Patzek did agree that ethanol will not be a "silver bullet" that solves America's energy needs and that the nation needs to drastically cut its dependence on fossil fuels.

Both presented their opinions Monday night at Wilson College in a forum sponsored by Penn-Mar Ethanol LLC, which has proposed building an ethanol plant in Franklin County, and Citizens for a Quality Environment, which opposes the project.


"It's liquor. It's white lightning," Morris, the vice president of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance told the audience of about 200 in Thomson Hall. In a span of about 25 years, he said, Brazil now produces about 40 percent of its fuel for automobile transportation from ethanol derived from sugar cane.

Patzek, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, said the over-production of corn to satisfy the demands for food, livestock feed and energy will deplete soils, "which of course says nothing about the energy used to produce ethanol."

The energy to produce the corn - in the form of fertilization, irrigation, transportation and other factors - results in a negative energy balance when figured in with the energy needed to distill ethanol, according to Patzek.

"As far as a fuel, it's substandard," said Patzek. It requires 35 percent more ethanol to drive the same distance as a gallon of gasoline, he said.

Morris said farmers and ethanol producers have become more efficient over 25 years, resulting in a net energy balance in the making of ethanol. New ethanol plants require about half the energy to produce ethanol, he said.

Morris also took issue with Patzek's assertion that modern agricultural methods are unsustainable. In Minnesota, he said, there are farms that have been growing corn for 150 years and if the crop was that harmful to soil in terms of erosion "we should be getting down to sea level."

Patzek said improving the average miles per gallon of the nation's vehicle fleet would be the equivalent of all the ethanol production in the country, about 4.5 billion gallons. Morris said Minnesota produces enough ethanol to displace 10 percent of the gasoline used in that state.

"There's a lot of passion about the issue," said Jamie Heinbach, a member of the Student Environmental Action Coalition at Shippensburg (Pa.) University. "As of right now, I don't have enough information to form a concrete opinion."

"I thought it was like an economist looking at a farmer and telling him what to do," Greencastle, Pa., dairy farmer Paul Hoover said of Patzek's presentation. Hoover said he found Morris's arguments on the economics of ethanol more persuasive.

"I think he nailed it talking about the fundamental unsustainability of industrial agriculture," Dave Houck of Philadelphia, a member of a group called Action PA, said of Patzek's presentation.

"The more you read, the more you see there's disagreement," said Edward Wells, an associate professor of environmental studies at Wilson. How someone looks at the economic and environmental issues will likely determine what side of the ethanol debate a person will take.

"It comes down to values," Wells said.

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