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A closer look at the future of ethanol and our renewable energy future

Much of the corn grown in the U.S. today is genetically engineered to resist the herbicide Roundup.
Mark Brush
Michigan Radio
A cornfield in northern Ohio.

It’s been seven years since America hit the accelerator on corn-based ethanol fuels. Homegrown corn became the centerpiece of a push to find an alternative to foreign oil.

President Bush signed this expansion of the Renewable Fuel Standard in 2007, promising it would make us “stronger, cleaner and more secure.”

But, as is so often the case, something that offers great promise on one hand, takes its toll on the other hand. So the view of corn-based ethanol very much depends upon which side of the fence you’re standing on.

Proponents, including The Michigan Corn Growers Association, say corn-based ethanol is a greener source of fuel -- the future of our energy. And many farmers, in Michigan and across the Corn Belt, rushed to convert  pasture and conservation land to plant corn,  grateful for the chance to earn a better living thanks to this new market for their corn.

But critics worry about environmental damage: destroyed habitat, increased fertilizer use threatening water supplies, and global warming as that converted land is plowed, releasing carbon dioxide that had been locked into the soil.

And now we hear that the Obama administration has proposed reducing the amount of ethanol that must be blended into the gasoline supply. Farmers are protesting; ethanol advocates worry it’s a step backward for alternative energy, and accuse Big Oil and its lobbyists of slinging misinformation and myths about corn-based ethanol.

Today, we take a closer look at the future of ethanol and what our renewable energy future might look like.

Bruce Dale, a Professor of Chemical Engineering and former Chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at Michigan State University, joined us today His MSU bio notes:

"In plain terms, Professor Dale is trying to figure out what we will do to provide environmentally sustainable fuels and chemical products for our society once the Age of Petroleum winds to its inevitable end sometime in this century."

We asked why he hopes this age of petroleum “ends with a whimper and not a bang.”

*Listen to the audio above.

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