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Ethanol production gets hearing at SIUE panel discussion

Experts disagree about effects of ethanol on environment  

This article originally appeared in the St. Clair County Suburban Journal.

Whether ethanol production is good for the U.S. depends on who you listen to.

The audience at a panel discussion on ethanol production listened to both sides of the debate at the Morris University Center on the campus of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

The talk centered on the impact of ethanol production, and its impact on resources.

Panelists included Christopher Lant, Ph.D., executive director of the Universities Council on Water Resources and professor in the Southern Illinois University Carbondale Department of Geography and Environmental Resources; John Caupert, director of the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center at SIUE; Christopher H. Pearson, Ph.D., assistant professor in the SIUE Department of Philosophy; and Ira Altman, Ph.D., assistant professor in the SIUC Department of Agribusiness Economics.

The event was part of a statewide series, "All Consuming: Conversations on Oil and Water," that runs through the fall of 2009 in Illinois. 

The series is sponsored by the Illinois Humanities Council, the Motorola Foundation and the Boeing Company.

Pearson said it was important to look at how scientific experts can disagree about the same facts related to ethanol production.

Pearson said human values can distort the results of scientific findings.

"People can distort the (scientific) results," he said.

Models can be used to help determine scientific results, he said.

"But models can also distort the way the world really works," he said

Lant and Caupert, in general, disagreed about the overall effects of ethanol production.

While Lant said ethanol production in some ways harmed the environment, Caupert said the overall effect was a plus for farmers and the economy as a whole.

Lant and Caupert differed on how much water is used during the ethanol production process: Lant said the production of ethanol included water used by farmers to grow the corn; Caupert said only 13 percent of corn crops were irrigated by artificial means.

"The majority (of corn crops) are irrigated by rainfall," Caupert said.

Lant said 99 percent of the water used to produce corn ethanol is outside of the production facility in corn fields.

"It takes 1,000 liters of water to make a gallon of ethanol," Lant said. "The impact (of ethanol production) is very high."

Lant said ethanol production worldwide would use as much as 7.5 billion gallons of water by 2012.

Caupert said ethanol production is a good alternative to purchasing oil from outside the country.

"Two thirds of oil resources in the world are located in volatile areas of the world," he said. "The U.S. imports 65 percent of its oil. We purchase $250 billion per year from foreign oil producers."

Altman said the alternatives to using materials other than corn to produce ethanol are cost prohibitive.

"It’s very capital intensive," he said. "It’s about 10 times as much. It’s not financially feasible compared to corn ethanol (production)."

The cost to produce a plant that converts other cellulose materials into ethanol ranges from $300 to $400 million, compared to $30 to $40 million for corn, he said.

Altman said other possible materials used to produce ethanol include switchgrass, wheat straw and wood products.

He said ethanol has become the most successful alternative to producing gas from oil.

"It’s also been profitable for corn growers," Altman said.

Major ethanol producers include the U.S., China, India and Brazil.