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Tossed Out

Hope or Hoax
E15 pumps at the Zarco 66 gas station in Lawrence, KS (Jeremy Bernfeld/Harvest Public Media)

Hope or Hoax?

The Truth Behind the American Ethanol Debate

The ethanol industry is coming away from the lame-duck session of Congress with its subsidies and tariffs intact for one more year.  And the U.S. mandate for renewable fuel production — which comes mostly in the form of corn-based ethanol —will increase by 1 billion gallons in 2011.

But that doesn’t mean smooth sailing for ethanol.

With a new Congress waiting in the wings, the debate over ethanol’s future is about to hit another gear.  Earlier this month, a bipartisan group of Senators signed a letter calling ethanol "fiscally indefensible" and "environmentally unwise."

But an uncertain path is nothing new for ethanol.

It opened the 20th century with a bright future and plans to fuel the nation’s burgeoning wanderlust embodied by Henry Ford’s model T.

That didn’t pan out.  

Since then the fuel has seen booms and busts, stumbled upon a supporting role as a gasoline additive, been subject to some god-awful nicknames (please see gasohol for reference) and came out on the other end with plumb subsidies from Uncle Sam. 

Now it’s poised to make yet another run at being America’s fuel, rebranded with marketing wiz-bang as a green alternative for the NASCAR set.

Not so fast, say its critics.  Even ethanol’s one time champion Al Gore says his endorsement was merely a play for the hearts of Iowa farmers in the heart of the Corn Belt …. ouch.        

And there are a growing number of voices calling it everything from a threat to our food supply to an eco-charlatan.

Nevertheless, ethanol has supporters who are pulled by its economic potential.  And researchers say they’re tantalizingly close to cracking open new ways of producing ethanol, even if in the past those have always been years away. 

So who’s telling the truth here, and moreover, where should America see ethanol as it stares down its energy future? 

And if we pick ethanol today will it be safe for our cars or make our food cost more?  And besides, who is really lining their pockets with cash from those ethanol plants?  Heck, forget the money — is ethanol even a green fuel?

These are some of the questions our reporters picked apart as they looked for truths in the great American ethanol debate.