Ethanol facing cloudy future in Georgia

Photo by Carly Farrell

Photo by Carly Farrell

ALBANY, Ga. -- Just more than five years ago, the gasoline additive ethanol was being touted as the fuel of the future, an answer to the country's fuel crisis and a savior of the environment.

Biofuels seemed to be the wave of the future. The trouble is that none of those hopes have come to fruition.

In 2005, the U.S. government, despite misgivings from the private sector, mandated ethanol be mixed into the nation's gasoline supply.

Much of the early coverage of ethanol, at a 10 percent mix, was positive and biofuel plants began springing up all over the country.

Over the course of time, however, ethanol -- which is not as energy dense as oil -- has proven to actually reduce fuel mileage and accelerate the drying of engine seals. And because it burns hotter than gasoline, it breaks down expensive catalytic converters (which help clean engine emissions) at a much faster rate than straight gas.

"I've never sold a gallon of it (ethanol) and will never sell it unless I am forced to do so by the government," Darsey Oil Co. President Chuck Darsey said. "It ruins engines and there hasn't been enough research done to determine if it's really the answer to our dependence on foreign oil."

That's not the only problem. Over the past few weeks, two Georgia ethanol plants -- in Camilla and Sopertion -- have either filed for bankruptcy protection or ceased operations altogether.

In Camilla, the Mitchell Co. Development Authority, after financing Southwest Georgia Ethanol LLC's to the tune of $8.6 million in revenue bonds, is still sorting through the company's recent Chapter 11 filing.

The company blamed financial prices on the high price of corn compared to the price for ethanol. Plant officials also said they had operational difficulties resulting from construction and design flaws.

In Soperton, the plan was to turn wood chips into ethanol, but that plant closed last month without producing a single gallon of the bio-fuel.

Both plants have investors -- and the government -- on the hook for loans totaling $100 million each.

"I'm kind of torn about ethanol," Peterson Oil General Manager Reid Logan said. "In the early days, it was good to us, but as time went on I've decided I don't like it. The product reduces fuel mileage and can also cause water to accumulate in fuel tanks."

But that's not Logan's biggest beef with the bio-fuel for vehicles.

"My biggest problem is that ethanol is not a market-driven commodity," said Logan. "This is a government mandate and we have to blend the fuel, whether we like it or not. We are totally dependent on our leaders in Washington to make these decisions for us. We're stuck. The market isn't dictating it. In the long run, I just don't see (ethanol) being viable."

Just last month, the Environmental Protection Agency appeared poised to approve boosting ethanol content at the pump from 10 to 15 percent.

Darsey scoffed at that move.

"They can't even solve the problem of 10 percent blend and they want to boost it to 15 percent?" groused Darsy. "That's crazy."