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NASCAR Gasses Up on Corn Ethanol - For a Price

NASCAR Gasses Up on Corn Ethanol - For a Price

Friday, October 29, 2010

In a fall season rife with bad news for the corn ethanol industry, its lobby has been hyping a new partnership with NASCAR. According to USA Today, NASCAR CEO and chairman Brian France announced the sponsorship before the Oct. 16 Sprint Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

In a move that could be regarded as economically motivated as well as environmentally aware, NASCAR will move to an ethanol blend of fuel beginning with the 2011 Daytona 500. NASCAR has put an emphasis on recycling (all tires, oils, fluids and batteries used in competition are recycled, and sponsors have helped expand programs in campgrounds) and achieved LEED certification for new office buildings in Charlotte and Daytona Beach. But the switch to ethanol might be the most important step in achieving an ancillary benefit — attracting new sponsors in the green economy to cash-strapped teams hurting for funding since the onset of the recession. NASCAR couldn't provide many specifics about its rationale for embracing ethanol. France said the move would reduce the carbon footprint of a race ("we're not exactly certain, but there is a benefit").

NASCAR is “not exactly certain” of the supposed environmental benefits of corn ethanol but apparently they’re sure there is some. At EWG, we are certain that using corn ethanol as an alternative to gasoline is hardly a green solution to our energy needs. We know that between 2005 and 2009, U.S. taxpayers spent a whopping $17 billion to subsidize corn ethanol blends in gasoline – that produced a paltry reduction in overall oil consumption equal to a 1.1 mile-per-gallon increase in fleet-wide fuel economy. We’re sure that corn ethanol production pollutes fresh water sources in the Midwest.  We know that there are serious concerns about ethanol plants and their impact on the environment. We know corn production for ethanol expands the Dead Zone.  We also know it has led to obliteration of wildlife habitat. Does NASCAR want to ask its fans to choose between watching races and fishing in clean water or hunting in abundant habitat? And according to this news release, all the ethanol supplied by NASCAR sponsor Sunoco will be produced by a plant in Fulton, N.Y. and blended with gasoline at another facility in Marcus Hooks, Penn.  We know that the fuel powering NASCAR’s racers will have to be shipped by truck to far-flung racetracks all over the country. The result will be multiple ethanol tank trucks traveling to multiple tracks almost every week of the year. Will these huge semis be burning soy biodiesel? Doubtful. The “green” benefit of burning thousands of gallons of diesel to haul a fuel with dubious environmental benefits to a location where hundreds of cars and trucks drive furiously around in circles, combined with the energy it takes to grow and haul the corn around in the first place is next … to … zero. For the ethanol lobby, facing the prospect of the ethanol tax credit subsidy expiring at the end of the year and consumer confusion at fueling stations across the country when ethanol blends increase only for specific model year vehicles, the NASCAR announcement was a welcome bit of good news. But the only thing green in this deal is the money changing hands. Last month (Sept. 17), The Associated Press reported that NASCAR's corporate sponsorships have been drying up due to the sour economy. This  “partnership” is really about NASCAR teaming up with ethanol for financial reasons, not environmental concerns. When approached in 2007 about using ethanol -- before the financial crisis -- The Charlotte Observer reported that NASCAR officials were “lukewarm” to the idea:

A NASCAR spokesman saying because ethanol is not as efficient as gasoline, larger fuel tanks or more frequent pit stops for refueling would be necessary, and that would constitute a safety concern.

Ethanol Sponsorship at Odds with Motorcycle Industry as Well This also wouldn't be the first time the ethanol industry’s sponsorships have been at odds with the interests of those it supports. The Renewable Fuels Association is a major sponsor at the largest campground and event center at South Dakota’s annual 600,000 biker Sturgis motorcycle rally -- the Legendary Buffalo Chip:

The Sturgis Rally offers an opportunity for attendees to be educated on ethanol-blended fuel. The Legendary Buffalo Chip staff and vehicles will show their support by sporting “Ethanol: Fueled With Pride” decals as they travel throughout the grounds. “The Legendary Buffalo Chip and the Sturgis Rally are a one-of-a-kind experience. A celebration of American Freedom, this high-octane event is the perfect environment to let consumers know about the benefits of cleaner-burning, domestic ethanol fuel,” says Buffalo Chip Campground Sponsorship Director Lon Nordbye. “The Chip chooses ethanol, and we are proud to host the Renewable Fuels Association at the largest music festival for motorcycling in the world.”

The 'Chip’ may choose ethanol, but the American Motorcycle Association doesn't. Its Oct. 15 news release clearly laid out its opposition to higher ethanol blends, and also warned that:

“Gasoline containing more than 10 percent ethanol could result in premature engine damage or failure while a motorcycle is being ridden,” said Imre Szauter, AMA government affairs manager. “We're also concerned about any degradation in performance, fuel economy and rideability that may result from the long-term use of blended fuels with greater than 10 percent ethanol.”

If America is truly going to wean itself off its addiction to oil and fight the specter of climate change, conservation and efficiency must be part of the solution. Promoting excessive consumption of greenhouse gas-belching fuels -- either through tens of thousands of Harleys thundering through the Black Hills of South Dakota or with high octane race cars roaring around a track -- is not only at odds with even the most basic environmental message; it’s also a blatant hypocritical admission that corn ethanol is about getting people to burn more corn ethanol, and not about protecting the environment.


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