The president's crash program to produce gasohol is deep in controversy. Without a doubt, you're going to see more gasohol pumps in the neighborhood. But the price per gallon will be higher than many people want to pay. The program also has some inflationary side effects and may not save the nation any oil.
Gasohol combines nine parts of unleaded gasoline with one part ethyl alcohol (ethanol), generally made from fermented grain, sugar or other vegetable matter.
The recipe for successful politics shows similar proportions: nine parts of regional pandering, overlaid with one part national purpose. The explosive mixture of excess corn in an election year ignited the gasohol program and will keep it running. But there are no clear answers yet to the following important questions:
Will gasohol ever be price-competitive without government subsidies? Federal and state subsidies now run from 4 to 11 cents per gallon. Yet even with that kind of help, it's hard for gasohol to compete with unleaded regular gasoline, in many areas. The new money allocated to gasohol by the synthetic fuels bill will encourage production but will also drive up distillery costs.
Will gasohol save the nation any oil? The debate on this question is shedding more heat than light. After talking to 12 participants in the controversy, my associate, Dedra Hauser, reported wearily, "A lot of these numbers and forecasts are basically political.
What you conclude depends on what you were inclined to think in the first place."
The oil industry has formally protested certain subsidies granted to Archer-Daniels-Midland co., for its ethanol plant. By the oil industry's count, the ADM plant uses 15 percent more energy than it produces. By ADM's count, there's a 39 percent energy gain.
Three other studies reached three different conclusions. Says the Department of Energy: Ethanol distilled from corn yields a 5 percent energy gain. Says Congress' Office of Technology Assessment: There's an energy loss unless ethanol can be used to replace some of the octane added to gasoline. Says the American Petroleum Institute: Gasohol would stretch our energy supplies if made from sugar cane but reduce them if made from corn.
There is agreement, however, on one point. If the distillery runs on coal or on energy produced by a renewable resource, it won't matter if the process uses more energy than it produces. We would still be saving badly needed oil.
Will gasohol save a lot of gasoline? If we produce the 500 million barrels the president wants this year, we'll have saved only one half of one percent of our gasoline supplies. Some sources say that maximum gasoline savings won't top 2 percent in the 1980s; however, available cropland will have declined, which may make it hard to keep up ethanol production and still meet food needs.
Will rising gasohol production cause food-price inflation? Increased demand for grain could push grain prices up and raise the cost of producing meat. As more marginal cropland is brought into production of feed the ethanol machine, more diesel fuel and more petroleum-based fertilizer will be used, making farming more costly and energy-intensive. On the other hand, a byproduct of corn distillation can be used as cattle fodder and might take some of the price pressure off feed grains.
Are there other effects? Vapor lock (boiling in the fuel pump) is more prevalent with gasohol. It's more explosive than gasoline. The first time you put it in your tank it might loosen some rust and clog some lines. The Environmental Protection Agency says that you'll get about 3 percent fewer miles per gallon with gasohol. If you don't correct for the lower mileage by buying a more fuel-efficient car (or driving less), you'll fritter away the oil savings by tanking up more often.