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The Green Highway

All aboard the ethanol bandwagon Add to ...

From now on, whenever you pump gas into the tank you will be getting at least 5 per cent ethanol (E5) whether you like it or not.

Last week, Canada's Renewable Fuel Mandate came into effect; it requires an average of 5 per cent ethanol content in gasoline across the country. While I think this is cause for dancing in the streets, I know I'll be receiving angry e-mails from readers who will tell me once again that "ethanol is a scam" and that "food shouldn't be wasted as fuel' and that "ethanol has no net environmental benefit."

I have refuted those claims in previous columns and won't trot out the data again here, but the fact that the "mandate" was such a non-event shows how poorly the ethanol industry has made its case to the Canadian public. E5 means income for farmers, ($400-million of additional corn sales in Ontario alone), cleaner air and a step toward energy security. If the voters saw this as a positive thing you'd probably see Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who's done next to nothing for the environment, pumping the first few gallons into his limo at a photo op.

But Canadian politicians are afraid of the ethanol issue because of the "gravy train" smear. There has been $1.5-billion spent by the feds to kick-start the renewable fuels industry. That's peanuts compared to the gigantic subsidies and enormous tax breaks handed to the oil industry, but people persist in believing ethanol is just a handout to farmers.

Nevertheless, the renewable fuels industry is up and running and putting the "mandate" into effect reduces greenhouse gases by 4.2 megatonnes a year, roughly the equivalent of removing one million cars from the road. Canada buys a million barrels of oil a day from the world's petro-dictators; renewable fuel will now replace 14 million of those barrels a year.

"We import 45 per cent of all the petroleum that we refine into gasoline and other petroleum products in Canada. Most Canadians don't know that. They assume we're an energy superpower and that we are sustained and we're not," said Gordon Quaiattini, president of the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association. "Ethanol and biodiesel help diversify our fuel supply, add new income for farmers and reduce harmful greenhouse gases."

Ethanol is one of the ways to go if we want the benefits stated above. Corn may not be the perfect crop for this purpose but it's the one we have at the moment. Soon we will have cellulosic ethanol produced from garbage dumps. Maybe then ethanol's image will improve.

But there is still a big disconnect between renewable fuels and the public. Did you know there are eight million Flex Fuel vehicles on the road in North America, which is about 3 per cent of the total fleet? Flex Fuel means that these vehicles can burn E85, the blend of 15 per cent gasoline and 85 per cent ethanol. Domestic auto makers have pledged that half the vehicles they build will be Flex Fuel by 2012.

Sure, oil companies aren't in business to promote ethanol and never fail to miss an opportunity to do so. Here's an example: if you drive Highway 401, you'll see the new service stations with gas bars monopolized by Canadian Tire. They're called Gas Plus. That must mean Gas Plus chocolate bars and Gas Plus potato chips because it certainly doesn't mean Gas Plus E85. There is not a single E85 pump along Canada's busiest highway.

In contrast, the Obama administration in the United States has made the promotion of renewable fuels a major priority for environmental benefits and mostly for "energy security." It's mandating Bio-fuels Corridors. You can now drive Chicago to Houston on the I-65 and find E85 all along the way. You snowbirds who drive the I-75 from Detroit to Miami will soon have E85 top to bottom as well. Just don't expect to find it on the 401 or anywhere else along the length of a major highway in Canada.

The renewable fuels industry now has the E5 mandate it has been looking for and next year it will also get a B2 mandate, which means 2 per cent bio-diesel. But until the industry persuades Canadians of the benefits, don't expect politicians to be doing photo ops - or much else - for the industry.

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