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The ethanol picture is changing fast

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“Turn more corn into ethanol and we’ll solve our energy problems!” Sound familiar? That was such a politically popular “feel-good fantasy” we heard over the last couple of years. But the NMMA’s president, Thom Dammrich, correctly labeled this knee-jerk policy “the greatest scam in America” as he often referred to potential problems that ethanol has presented for our marine engines.

Now, corn to ethanol doesn’t look so good, politically or realistically, and we’re about to see a major shift away from a policy of encouraging corn-based ethanol. Why? If the arguments that producing ethanol from corn pollutes more or making ethanol consumes more energy than it produces aren’t enough, the arguments surrounding food products will get everyone’s attention.

It’s a fact that corn starts the majority of our food products from beef to colas. In 2007, a quarter of the corn crop became ethanol, not food. This year, that figure is expected to hit 35 percent and, under the energy bill passed by Congress late last year, will continue on up from there. The price of corn has gone up 240 percent since 2006.

The International Food Policy Research Institute reported that the corn being diverted to ethanol production has accounted for one-third of the rise in U.S. food prices. Also, food riots have been reported in Mexico, Pakistan, Haiti and Ethiopia, among others. And here’s an irony: A recent Time magazine cover story identified biofuels as creating more greenhouse gasses. A bill has already been introduced by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison to freeze ethanol levels.

The question is: should we replace corn-based ethanol and how? Answer: Yes. We can start by going after known oil and gas reserves. We have enough oil and gas to meet our needs in the U.S. For example, the recently discovered Bakken Formation in North Dakota is estimated to contain between 200 billion and 500 billion barrels of oil, which would increase our oil reserves by a factor of 10. Put another way, this field is so large it could mean a 30-year supply of oil for the U.S., and would effectively make us independent of the oil cartel.

Employ cost-effective horizontal drilling. Marathon Oil reportedly has drilled 300 new wells in the Bakken Formation at a cost of $.5 billion. Then, there are new low-cost, environmentally friendly technologies for processing the mammoth U.S. and Canadian oil sands reserves. New off-shore exploration along the coast of Brazil and the Caribbean could yield several million barrels of oil a day by 2020. And we could tap into the billions of barrels of oil under ANWR, among others.

Finally, is our concern about ethanol in marine engines now history? Not at all. No one is prepared to say ethanol will disappear. In fact, developing cellulose-based ethanol may effectively combine selected microorganisms with crops that grow on substandard land to provide large quantities of ethanol in the future.

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