A "major new gasohol program" -- using corn embargoed from shipment to the Soviet Union -- was revealed to a nationwide television audience yesterday by Deputy Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher.
But officials directly involved in the program -- at the White House and the Departments of Agriculture and Energy -- had a substantially different version of what the program is to be.
Christopher volunteered the disclosure in response to criticism by Republican presidential candidates of the embargo, which was ordered Friday by President Carter in partial retaliation for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Some of the embargoed 17 million tons of grain will be for "a massive increase of . . . gasohol production," Carter said.
Gasohol -- a mix of nine parts gasoline and one part pure, 200-proof, octane-boosting alcohol -- is a clean burning substitute for unleaded premium fuel.
Christopher, appearing on "Face the Nation" (CBS, WDVM), said that the new program "will use the equivalent of 5 million tons of corn" during 1980, "This will lead to the production of over 500 million gallons of gasohol."
His numbers puzzled Weldon V. Barton, director of the Agriculture Department's Office of Energy.
To start with, Barton told a reporter, the 182.5 million bushels of corn involved would produce 456 million gallons of the alcohol, not gasohol. The alcohol, known as ethanol, would be combined with nine times as much gasoline, for a total of 4.56 billion gallons of gasohol.
Until now, however, production of gasohol on such a large scale had been projected not for the end of 1980, but for the end of 1985, Barton said.
With a "crash" effort, Barton said, possibly half of the 1985 production goal could be realized in 1980. He said that such an effort would involve enactment of legislation providing a permanent or long-term 40-cent-a-gallon subsidy of ethanol; tapping the underused or unused capacity of distilleries to make 140-proof to 190-proof ethanol, and construction of facilities to convert that product into 200-prof alcohol.
Currently, 1980 production is expected to total about 50 million gallons of ethanol for gasohol. The crash effort could bring about 150 million more, Barton said. He said the principal producer, Archer-Daniel Midland, is operating at capacity. Another producer, CPC International, has completed feasibility studies for a 50-million gallon plant.
Christopher could not be reached for comment.
On the television program, the State Department official, apparently referring to unleaded premium fuel, said: "Indeed, by the end of 1980 over 10 percent of a particular kind of fuel will have alcohol additive."
Barton said that Christopher was essentially correct in translating 5 million tons of corn into 10 percent of premium unleaded fuel -- except that it won't happen in 12 months.
Christopher, in introducing his disclosure of the "new" program, said that the administration will announce it today.
At the White House, however, Stuart E. Eizenstat, assistant to the president for domestic affairs, told a reporter that the Department of Energy had been developing the program over several months -- "long before the Afghanistan problem". He also said that DOE will announce the program "within the next few days,' although he wouldn't foreclose the possibility of an announcement today.
In addition, Eizenstat said, he understood -- on the basis of a memo from DOE Deputy Secretary John C. Sawhill -- that the production of gasohol targeted for the end of 1980 was 400 million gallons. Christopher had said 500 million -- and apparently had meant alcohol.
DOE, Sawhill, through a spokesman, said, "We are working on developing a gasohol program and are still in the process of firming it up. An announcement will be made tomorrow [Monday] or in the next few days."
On Friday in San Francisco, the American Association for the Advancement of Science was told that the only way to avoid gasoline lines -- this summer and in summers to come -- is to substitute alcohol for gasoline and get more cars to run on it.
"It's the only way to solve the gas line problem in the forseeable future," said Dr. Barry Commoner, director of the Center for Biology of Natural Systems at Washington University in St. Louis.