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Fight to stop ethanol's damage will not be easy

Thom Dammrich calls it a “scam,” and he may be right. We’ll be kinder and call corn-based ethanol a well-intentioned mistake.

Either way, there’s a growing body of evidence that the once-heralded solution to exhaust gas emissions not only is damaging a fragile economy, but is doing more harm than good to the environment it was intended to protect.

Advocates maintain ethanol will reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil, cut down on pollution and give an added boost to struggling Midwest farmers.

But the corn-based fuel has given the marine industry more than a few headaches. It causes engines to run hotter, raising three serious concerns. First, performance and engine efficiency can suffer. Second, there is a greater danger of engine failure, and third, because of the chemical makeup of ethanol, it takes more ethanol than gasoline to fuel an engine.

For a while, it appeared the marine industry and only a few others were expressing concerns about ethanol.

Now, with food prices escalating in the U.S. and reports of Third World famine on the rise, more people, including environmental organizations, are climbing aboard the anti-ethanol bandwagon.

As Dammrich says, “There’s been an awakening and a realization that it wasn’t a good idea to begin with.”

Political leaders in some states also have a beef with the mandates set forth in the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce by half this year’s ethanol requirement from nine billion gallons to 4.5 billion gallons. His stand is fueled primarily by the high corn prices.

According to some estimates, reducing the ethanol mandates by one quarter to one half might bring corn prices down 5 to 10 percent.

Perry has garnered support from his gubernatorial colleagues in other states, especially those whose constituents include cattlemen, poultry farmers and others who have to buy the corn to feed their livestock.

As of press time, more than four dozen House Republicans and two dozen GOP senators, including presidential candidate John McCain, have written the EPA in favor of the waiver.

A bill already has been introduced by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) to freeze ethanol levels. The bill, which is bogged down in the Committee on Environment and Public Works, would freeze the corn-based ethanol mandate at this year’s level.

Sen. Hutchison’s bill faces opposition from GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and other Senate defenders of ethanol.

In Washington, getting any legislation changed is no small task. And in this case, the Corn Belt lobby is powerful and is loaded for bear on the ethanol issue.

But that does not mean the marine industry should sit still and simply watch this debate unfold.

Whether it comes from corn, sugarcane, cellulose or some other source, ethanol is still troublesome for marine engines and tanks.

What is on the horizon is the use of cellulose for making ethanol. Although advocates praise cellulose for its eco-friendly qualities and its non-impact on food prices, one marine industry leader is not convinced.

Norm Schultz says in his Dealer Outlook blog for Trade Only, “The whole thing still scares me. Almost anything grown can be chopped down and used to make ethanol, and therein lies the scare. I see the corn problems ending, but I do not see, for the marine industry, the ethanol issue ending.”

That’s why the marine industry needs to keep up the pressure by voicing its concerns about ethanol-related problems in boat engines and tanks.

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