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The commitment to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels by mandating the blending of ethanol into gasoline and diesel led to lower prices at the pump, a reduction in toxic tailpipe emissions and more, writes Bob Rae. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)
The commitment to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels by mandating the blending of ethanol into gasoline and diesel led to lower prices at the pump, a reduction in toxic tailpipe emissions and more, writes Bob Rae. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)

BOB RAE

Why a Canadian biofuels industry remains smart public policy Add to ...

Bob Rae is a partner at Olthuis Kleer Townshend LLP and teaches at the University of Toronto.

When I was elected premier of Ontario in 1990, the province and the country faced many tough challenges. Canada was in the midst of a major recession. Ontario was hit particularly hard. At the same time, there were long-term, underlying challenges that could no longer be ignored. I came to office with an ambitious environmental agenda. Some thought that this was incompatible with jobs, but I did not agree. And neither did Elmer Buchanan, Ontario’s wise and capable Minister of Agriculture and Rural Affairs.

There was, and more so today, growing evidence in the scientific and medical communities that health issues caused by pollution from tail pipe emissions and smoke stacks from coal plants were a problem that could no longer be ignored, or we would be paying the consequences for generations to come. As well, air pollution around the world is a major public-health crisis. When schools in India and China have to be closed because of bad air, it is not an issue that has gone away.

We needed a solution that addressed this increasingly urgent issue, and at the same time create a sustainable industry that contributed positively to Ontario and Canada’s GDP for years to come. Rural and smaller-town Ontario was hit hard by the force of change. Our government worked with our industry partners in the private sector as well as environmental groups and health advocates to develop a policy that would address the growing issues of pollution and improve air quality.

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It isn’t easy to find solutions to public-policy problems that address multiple priorities simultaneously, but our support of renewable fuels and specifically at that time ethanol turned out to be one of those rare instances. Readers will perhaps know that not everything I did in government was continued by successor governments, or by other governments across Canada.

But there was no argument about the wisdom of creating a renewable fuel industry. The commitment to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels by mandating the blending of ethanol into gasoline and diesel led to lower prices at the pump, a reduction in toxic tailpipe emissions, lower greenhouse gas emissions, increased energy independence, more jobs for farmers in rural communities and built an industry of high-paying jobs. This evolved into policies adoption at the federal level as all three parties supported and passed additional legislation to mandate and expand the ethanol industry. Appreciate that this was done with the input from many government departments, including Energy, Agriculture, Finance, Innovation and Jobs, and much of the knowledge came from our universities and colleges, as well as from experience in other countries.

The Dalton McGuinty government’s decision to end coal-fired production of electricity was another key step forward in cleaning up air pollution. Anyone who lives in the Greater Toronto Area will remember the era of smog advisories in the 1980s and ’90s. As recently as 2005, there were 53 days of smog advisories in Ontario. In 2014, there were none. That is not a coincidence. The authors of a 2014 U of T study show “remarkable improvements in regional air pollution since 2000.” Concentrations of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides, two precursor pollutants for smog, have been steadily decreasing for almost two decades. In 2004, 1,700 Toronto citizens died prematurely and 6,000 were hospitalized because of poor air quality. In 2014, those numbers fell to 1,300 and 3,550, respectively. That’s still too high, but a significant improvement.

Not surprisingly, ethanol has strong support with health-advocacy groups such as the Canadian Cancer Society and The Canadian Lung Association. They remember the days of leaded gasoline and dangerous carcinogens such as benzene, which followed lead as the preferred octane enhancer by the gasoline companies. They remember the days of tailpipe emissions sending harmful particulates into the atmosphere as well as into our lungs. Biofuels such as ethanol continue to play a huge role in significantly reducing these environmental and health hazards, as well as GHGs.

You may have read attempts to revive the myth that growing industrial corn for fuel affects food prices and causes food shortages. Many peer-reviewed studies have categorically repudiated that argument, including the World Bank and the U.S. Department of Energy. In fact, a 2016 report by the United Nations confirms that while food prices in the United States are down, from 2012 to 2016, ethanol production has never been higher. This year, there will be a two-billion-bushel surplus of industrial corn in the United States that they couldn’t sell or give away. And with the recent technology breakthroughs in the development of cellulosic ethanol, there will be more ethanol available than ever before. This news is being well received by the global auto industry. With the move toward smaller, lighter engines that still need to maintain or increase power, car manufacturers are strong in their support of ethanol because, according to their own research, it has an octane of 113 and is the cleanest and least expensive octane enhancer available.

No matter how you look at it, ethanol and the provincial and federal government’s policies supporting the renewable fuel industry have been a success. It’s also why ethanol mandates are being increased or expanded in more than 50 countries around the world. It has become a truly global industry.

The other good news is that this is now a more mature industry that can afford to pay its own way in the world. Subsidies from both federal and provincial governments have expired, and that’s a good thing. It will be important to ensure that this level playing field is maintained into the future for all energy producers.

The future of energy use and production in the face of growing, and justifiable, concerns about air pollution and climate change, will always be the subject of debate. But biofuels will have a critical role to play in that future. Ontario and Canada can be proud of having engaged in a consistent effort to clean up the air and create a competitive, scientifically based industry over the past quarter-century. We should be proud of what we’ve accomplished and equally determined to surpass these achievements in the future.

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