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Brazil's Biofuel Strategy Pays Off as Gas Prices Soar

The Sao Martinho refinery makes ethanol out of sugar cane. The process is cheaper than the U.S. method, which uses corn.
The Sao Martinho refinery makes ethanol out of sugar cane. The process is cheaper than the U.S. method, which uses corn. (By Joshua Cogan For The Washington Post)

U.S. refiners sell a gasoline blend containing 10 percent ethanol in many parts of the Midwest, but they have been in no hurry to use more. Only a few hundred gasoline stations, mostly in the Midwest, offer a near-pure blend known as E85. Adapting cars to pure ethanol can be done relatively inexpensively by adding a fuel sensor and corrosion-resistant hoses, but there are only about 4 million flexible-fuel cars on U.S. roads out of more than 200 million.

Now the spike in gasoline prices has given ethanol a sudden edge.

Ethanol was selling for 30 cents less a gallon than gasoline this month in the Chicago wholesale market, even before refiners deducted the federal tax subsidy. Drivers in parts of Minnesota were paying $1.59 for a gallon of E85, compared with $1.99 for regular gasoline.

"If this doesn't scream that we need something more to make the oil companies buy this product, I don't know what does," said Monte Shaw, spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Association.

A provision in the Senate energy bill requires U.S. refiners and importers to double use of ethanol and other agriculture-derived fuels by 2012. It is supported by farm-state senators, consumer groups, several labor unions and environmental organizations. But the American Petroleum Institute, representing major oil companies, is fighting to keep it out of the final bill.

The United States imposes a stiff tariff on imported ethanol. But over the past 12 months, 160 million gallons of the Brazilian product still entered the country. The U.S. agribusiness giant Cargill Inc., the third-largest U.S. ethanol refiner, announced plans last year to refine Brazilian ethanol in El Salvador and export it to the United States duty-free under provisions of the Caribbean Basin Initiative.

The tariff is a sore point with Rodrigues, Brazil's agriculture minister. In 1948, his father acquired a bankrupt coffee plantation not far from the Sao Martinho sugar refinery, about a three-hour drive from Sao Paulo. Now he grows sugar cane on 7 square miles of rolling countryside.

"If the U.S. and Brazil would open their markets, they will contribute to democracy and peace," he told a group of visitors to his farm last month.

Brazil launched a "pro-alcohol" program in the 1970s with incentives for distilleries and auto companies that made ethanol-only cars. But motorists turned away from those cars in 1989 when they were squeezed by high prices and shortages.

In the 1990s, some distillers went bankrupt and many refiners and sugar-cane farmers fell on hard times. But the government stuck by its commitment to alternative fuels, purchasing unsold stocks of ethanol and showering tax breaks on cabdrivers who used ethanol.

Brazil has added 2.4 million acres of sugar cane since 1996, according to a report from the officer of the U.S. agricultural attaché in Brazil. This trend could be accelerated by a recent World Trade Organization decision that could end the dumping of sugar on world markets by the European Union.

About 70,000 farmers produced 385 million tons of sugar cane last year, and refiners made 4 billion gallons of alcohol fuel -- enough to replace 460 million barrels of oil.

Mills such as Sao Martinho are highly efficient. The pressed sugar-cane juice can either go to huge fermentation vats to make alcohol or be spun in centrifuges to produce sugar and molasses, depending on which product is priced more favorably on any given day. The plant supplies its own electrical power by burning the crushed outer stalk of the cane, known as bagasse .

Exact comparisons are hard to come by, but mill manager Mario Ortiz Gandini said the mill can produce sugar for less than half the price of U.S. ethanol from corn. "No country can beat us," he said.

Sugar's role in producing a "green" fuel is part of a broader rehabilitation of the crop's reputation. Colonial-era sugar planters, mainly Portuguese and Spanish, used slaves to hack and burn their way into northeast Brazil's wild interior, opening up the country but giving the crop a lasting reputation for appalling working conditions and environmental desecration.

"Sugar comes from a disreputable past, and there are still labor issues, but from what I have seen in Brazil, the energy balance and its environmental impacts make it an extremely promising source of energy," said Kenneth A. Cook, president of the Washington-based Environmental Working Group.

Paulo Rodrigues, who manages the family sugar plantation for his father, acknowledges that "sugar has had a bad reputation." But, he said, sugar cane requires fewer chemicals than any crop except pasture. His farm uses wasps to fight insects, reducing the need for chemical pesticides. The crop's dense leaves absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide, making it a good recycler of the greenhouse gas implicated in global warming.

Traditionally, some of the carbon is released back into the atmosphere when the leaves are burned off before the cane is cut. But according to William L. Burnquist of the Sugar Cane Technology Center, Brazilian environmental laws require the practice to be phased out.

Burning is being replaced by "green cane harvesting," in which machines cut unburned cane and separate the leaves mechanically. Mechanical harvesting eliminates the need for some temporary field jobs, but Burnquist noted: "These aren't jobs that you would wish for anybody."

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