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Ethanol plant rebirth is cause for scrutiny

by: Submitted photo An aerial  view of Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery located at Port Westward in Clatskanie.

Learning, as we did this week, that the defunct Cascade Grain ethanol plant - the new name for the facility is Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery, signifying a break from the prior ownership that went into bankruptcy - at Port Westward has drawn new investment and could someday actually start producing corn alcohol for fuel is not necessarily a cause for celebration.

Job prospects in Columbia County are always welcome news. As is new investment. But corn-based ethanol is not the right solution for Oregon's, or our nation's, fuel dilemma. No sooner had the popularity of ethanol climbed than the bottom fell out of this dubious energy source. For proof, search Google for the many mothballed ethanol plants, such as Port Westward, across the nation.

The principle concern about the ethanol plant project at Port Westward, from this newspaper's perspective, is about the nature of corn-based fuel. When Cascade Grain first started eyeballing Port Westward to build its $187 million ethanol plant in the early part of the last decade, the science on corn ethanol and popular perception of the product were still out for deliberation.

Now, however, we can unequivocably opine that corn-based fuel decreases gas mileage, leads to accelerated engine corrosion, has a manufacturing process (from the fertilizer used to grow corn, to the gas-burning tractor used to harvest it and the trains that transport it to the distillery) that arguably emits as much C02 as it portends to reduce and - this is the one that really galls - corn ethanol has resulted in an across-the-board price increase for agricultural foods, despite claims from the corn lobby.

In U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden's 2009 energy agenda that proposed a way to end the United States addiction to foreign oil, he wisely characterized corn ethanol in the same light as new oil-drilling endeavors. Said the senator, 'This country can't break free from its dependence on Middle Eastern oil by just drilling for more oil and producing more corn-based ethanol. Any addict will tell you that you can't cure an addiction by simply moving to a new drug, and relying on ethanol to get America off oil is not going to do the job.'

There is some hope, however, that firing up the idled plant for the purpose of corn ethanol production is not the final outcome in this saga. In reporter Tyler Graf's front-page article this week, Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery executives seem primarily interested in knocking the rust - figuratively speaking - off the Cascade Grain plant, getting it to the point where it is producing fuel and then selling it. Among economic development leaders in the county there has been analytical comments rendered that, in fact, the plant could be somewhat easily modified to support other feedstocks. Cellulosic ethanol, for instance, derived as it is from woody material and grasses, is a considerably more palatable fuel in the Pacific Northwest than corn, which must be trucked and trained from the Midwest. But, again, these are all speculative fuels during a desperate time of rising carbon emissions, fuel prices and Middle East hostility.

Last year there was a one-year federal extension of the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit subsidy at 45 cents per gallon for ethanol refiners, such as Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery aspires to be. And on May 4 a Senate bill was introduced to extend the credit at diminishing rates through 2013 and then convert to a variable tax credit through 2016 that would be inversely based on the price of crude oil.

Despite the political strength and drunken-ethanol speech of the corn lobby - visit the National Corn Growers Association website for more information - the proclivity of national politicians to kowtow to Iowa, the quick and dirty satisfaction politicians receive by proclaiming corn ethanol to be an 'alternative' fuel (as though that translates into it being a 'better' fuel) and the built-in market as states, such as Oregon, require a 10 percent blend of ethanol at the pump, it's time to end government subsidies for companies to produce ethanol. That includes state and local tax breaks that have given rise to the Port Westward plant.

It's a false-start fuel that has reduced our nation's food supply by encouraging corn above other crops on get-rich promises, and it doesn't work.