Tim Krohn: Ask Us: Is ethanol good or bad? Well, it's complicated

·3 min read

Jun. 5—Q: I am writing in regard to the article about the alpacas getting sheared at the Sibley Park Farm. I was wondering what happens to the fleece afterward? Also how are they going to protect the birds from the bird flu?

A: Mark Koch, the Mankato Public Works operations supervisor who oversees the farm, said they were cautious about bringing the ducks, chickens, geese, turkeys and other birds back to the farm this spring. Like the other farm animals at the park, the birds come from various farms in the area and spend the summer at the park farm.

"I talked with the DNR and multiple state agencies before we brought them in," Koch said.

He said the agencies had no problem with the city bringing the birds back.

While avian flu can sometimes hit small farmyard flocks, bird flu outbreaks that hit Minnesota and other states have been overwhelmingly found in large production facilities.

Earlier this year, avian flu caused the death or euthanization of 36 million chickens and turkeys in 32 states, including 2.9 million in Minnesota. But it has retreated quickly, with fewer cases detected recently in Minnesota poultry operations.

As for the annual spring shearing of the two alpacas, the fleece is given to a fiber cooperative to be graded and processed.

Q: I don't get it. I was disappointed to see all the Midwest governors pushing to have E15 waiver as permanent so we can have ethanol-blended gas year-round. I thought it's been proven that it takes more carbon to produce ethanol than regular gas. And every time I've used ethanol I got poorer gas mileage. Is it just politics or am I wrong about the above?

A: Stand-In Ask-Us Guy likes to get questions where he can track down definitive answers. Unfortunately that's not going to happen for this reader.

He can answer part of the question with confidence: People do get a little less in miles per gallon with an E15 ethanol blend compared to an E10 blend. But E15 costs less per gallon, so it more or less evens out the overall cost-to-mileage.

Whether E15 has a greater or lower net carbon footprint than gasoline depends on who you want to believe.

Not surprisingly, the oil industry has scads of studies that say ethanol production is bad in just about every way. And the ethanol industry and farm groups have equal numbers of studies they point to saying renewable corn ethanol production has a lower net carbon output than gasoline.

The Sierra Club isn't fond of corn-based ethanol or soybean-based biofuels, saying they have contributed greatly to more than 7 million acres of grasslands being converted to crop production between 2008 and 2012, bringing a variety of environmental and wildlife damage.

They are supportive of increasing cellulosic biofuels (those made from grasses, trees and wastes), which they say result in much more positive environmental outcomes.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture published a study saying greenhouse gas emissions from corn ethanol are about 39% lower than gasoline on an energy equivalent basis.

And you can find hundreds of other studies with competing findings.

So, sorry dear reader, but you will have to decide what study you want to believe.

As for politics playing a role in the debate, you can safely assume it does. Governors and politicians from oil states aren't big supporters of ethanol and Midwest farm state politicians where corn is grown and ethanol plants are located tend to be champions of ethanol.

Tim Krohn is Stand-In Ask Us Guy. Contact Ask Us at The Free Press, 418 S. Second St., Mankato, MN 56001. Call Mark Fischenich at 344-6321 or email your question to mfischenich@mankatofreepress.com; put Ask Us in the subject line.