Clark: Old Policies Stunting Potential for Innovation

Posted March 26, 2009 at 1:23pm

Everyone agrees that our nation is facing daunting challenges. From energy independence to economic sustainability, from national health care to national security, we are at a critical crossroads in history. Our actions today will determine the success of future American generations. It will take bold leadership to move our nation out of the current crisis.

But times of crisis also present enormous opportunities for transformative change. It’s clear that President Barack Obama is betting that one such opportunity is a new direction in our energy policy. His commitment to renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, geothermal, and ethanol will not only help free America from its addiction to foreign oil, but also create millions of new jobs to help jump-start the economy.

While it will take years for solar, wind and other alternative energies to have a major impact on our nation’s energy system, ethanol has already made important contributions by revitalizing rural communities, decreasing our dependence on imported oil and improving the environment.

Unfortunately, because of an antiquated government regulation, the ethanol industry is at a standstill. A bureaucratic regulation dating back to the early 1970s arbitrarily limits the amount of ethanol in the fuel supply to just 10 percent. Put simply, even if we wanted to put more homegrown and readily available ethanol into a gallon of gasoline, these old regulations wouldn’t allow it. This regulatory cap is not only limiting the ethanol in our fuel supply and preserving our addiction to Middle Eastern oil, but it’s also stunting American job creation.

Beyond that, the cap has stopped progress and development of second-generation biofuels dead in its tracks.

That’s why America’s ethanol producers have submitted a “green jobs waiver— to the Environmental Protection Agency to lift this limit for ethanol blends to as high as 15 percent a gallon — just 5 points higher than the current limits. Multiple scientific studies from academia, government and private industry show that a 15 percent blend of ethanol in gasoline has no adverse impact on a car’s performance, maintenance or emissions.

But let me be clear — this would not be a mandate. Gas stations would still be able to sell gasoline with lower levels or even no ethanol based on the needs of the consumer.

The benefits of ethanol use to our economic prosperity are indisputable. In fact, ethanol is currently poised to become one of America’s greatest job-creating engines. In 2008 alone, the ethanol industry created or supported half a million jobs. According to a recent study conducted by researchers from North Dakota State University, expanding the amount of ethanol in our gasoline to 15 percent could result in the creation of more than 130,000 jobs. Now that’s a stimulus plan!

In addition to the job creation and direct dollar impact on our national economy, moving to a 15 percent blend would ensure a market for the second generation of biofuels, which will be critical to grow this new economy. Cellulosic ethanol and other green fuels will continue to create tens of thousands of American jobs and reduce an additional 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year.

Currently, there are more than 300 million gallons of planned cellulosic ethanol capacity waiting to come online, but they have stalled because of a lack of an available market. If we don’t increase the blend of ethanol in our gasoline supply, many of these projects will be canceled or postponed — and with it, so will all of those related jobs.

Unfortunately, many people have voiced opposition to a higher blend, even with all of the economic benefits, because they have an outdated perspective on how ethanol production works. The truth is modern ethanol plants are more high-tech and greener than ever before. Today’s producers have increased ethanol production per bushel of corn, while reducing the energy consumed in ethanol production by more than 20 percent and water use by more than 25 percent. Research published in the Yale Journal of Industrial Ecology shows that today’s ethanol plants produce up to 59 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline. And according to the Department of Energy, each gallon of ethanol delivers one-third or more energy than it takes to be produced — and this positive energy balance is only increasing with new technologies.

Ethanol remains the only viable, available substitute to gasoline that is clean and green, high-tech and homegrown. We should lift the outdated 10 percent cap and enable America’s farmers, ethanol producers and biotechnologists to deliver their full contribution to America. Doing so will create jobs, protect our environment and fortify our national security. It’s a common-sense solution to our current economic crisis, and I urge the EPA to move swiftly in approving this request.

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark is co-chairman of Growth Energy.