The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden should drop his ethanol proposal

An ethanol processing plant in Menlo, Iowa, on April 12. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)
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The April 17 editorial “Biden gives in to the ethanol con” was fine as far as it went, but it missed what is perhaps the greatest danger from gasoline with increased percentages of ethanol in it: It destroys engines that are not designed to use it.

When I was legislative director for the National Marine Manufacturers Association, the trade association that represents recreational boat manufacturers, back in 2011, we worked with the manufacturers of Mercury outboard engines to conduct tests on E15 (gasoline with a 15 percent ethanol mix) and brand-new, just-off-the-assembly-line outboard engines. We discovered that because ethanol (alcohol) runs hotter than gasoline, it causes even new outboard engines to quickly burn up. The same thing happens in older automobile engines.

We joined with manufacturers of motorcycles, snowmobiles, lawn mowers and other gasoline-powered vehicles and tools to oppose the increase in ethanol percentage in gasoline from 10 percent. For various reasons, not including the Environmental Protection Agency admitting that increased ethanol was a bad move for the environment, the percentage of ethanol in most gasoline has remained at 10 percent for these many years. Raising it to 15 percent, as President Biden has proposed, would do incredible harm in so many ways, from raising food prices to harming the environment to ruining many gasoline engines. It is not a move we can afford, now or later. Mr. Biden should drop his recent proposal.

James Tyson Currie, Alexandria

There are two pernicious impacts of any increase in ethanol production: domestic food price inflation and global hunger.

Before the war, Ukraine and Russia were estimated by the U.S. Agriculture Departmentre to account for 17 percent of world corn exports. Overnight on Feb. 24, this quantity disappeared from the world market. Corn prices, already at a several-year high, have since risen an additional 20 percent.

The impact on U.S. food prices should be clear. Corn is typically the main ingredient in feed for poultry, beef and pork. Corn provides a major cooking oil and is an ingredient in countless processed foods.

Before the war, the World Food Program (WFP) estimated that 811 million people are undernourished. The WFP’s chief economist estimates that 44 million more people will suffer hunger because they are displaced by the war or because of price hikes from tight corn (and wheat) supplies. Many are Ukrainians, but most are in poor and lower-middle-income countries that were supplied by Ukraine and Russia.

The editorial correctly observed that the amount of corn used for increased E15 ethanol might be relatively small. But scarcity and psychology will magnify the price impact. Any diversion from food use is inexcusable.

Christopher E. Goldthwait, Washington

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