The ethanol conundrum

For Minnesota politicians, ethanol is the classic no-brainer issue. You are either pro-ethanol or don't want to get re-elected. For Minnesota environmentalists, it is a more complicated matter. While everyone with any green in their blood agrees on the need to develop alternative fuels, ethanol remains controversial because of the long running debate over whether its production requires more energy than it actually creates. "What I would really love is to get all the researchers in the same room and watch them duke it out and see who convinces me," says Jeanette Brimmer, legal director of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

Given such ambiguities, it is hardly surprising that the MCEA does not have a global position on the virtues of ethanol. "There are some good ways to do ethanol and there are some really bad ways. We're still trying to sort through that," explains Brimmer. "So our approach is a devil's in the details approach."

With rising gasoline prices fueling an unprecedented ethanol boom, those details are suddenly more critical than ever. Currently, there are 16 ethanol plants operating in Minnesota, which can produce about 600 million gallons of ethanol annually (or approximately 13 percent of the national capactiy). With eight new facilities in the planning stages, that output could triple by 2008.

To date, most proposals have zipped through the state's regulatory process, which is administered mainly by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. That's not to say there hasn't been controversy. As Dennis Lien of the Pioneer Press has reported, ethanol production requires a lot of water--between four and five gallons per gallon of ethanol. Because many of these proposals call for plants to be built in areas with problematic or otherwise diminished water supplies (mainly, in agricultural zones in the western and southwestern parts of the state), water use has become a highly contentious matter.

For Brimmer, an equally disturbing trend is the push to use coal--instead of natural gas--to power ethanol plants. Economically, the rationale isn't hard to see. One 2004 study showed that plant operators can save 70 percent on fuel costs by using coal; since then, natural gas prices have only continued to soar. But among environmentalists, even so-called "clean coal," is an anathema (or as Brimmer puts it, "an environmental oxymoron").

That's why the MCEA sued the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency after the agency granted a permit to the Heron Lake BioEnergy LLC, which aims to build a $97 million coal fired ethanol plant in the southern Minnesota town of Heron Lake. The Minnesota Court of Appeals is expected to rule on MCEA's lawsuit Monday. However that suit plays out, Brimmer anticipates more skirmishes because of the economic attractiveness of coal.

She also lays some blame at the feet of the MPCA, which, she says, has routinely fast-tracked ethanol proposals and cow-towed to the agendas of ethanol backers. That said, Brimmer adds, there is considerable uncertainty how the MPCA will process applications in the future. Earlier this month, the MPCA replaced its entire ethanol team, even the lawyer.