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Is Ethanol the Answer?

Is ethanol the answer to the environmental, economic, and social challenges faced by urban and rural communities in Saskatchewan?

Wheat would likely be the primary feedstock used to produce ethanol in Saskatchewan. Production plants may be integrated with cattle feedlots to take advantage of the main co-product which can be used as feed.

Grain-based ethanol production has been described by some as the "perfect" value-added industry for Saskatchewan's agricultural sector. Visions of a new and steady market for grain, revitalized rural economies, and a reduction of the exodus from rural Saskatchewan, all as a result of environmentally friendly "renewable fuel" production, have generated a good deal of excitement over ethanol industry expansion.

Evaluating the promises of ethanol requires delving into the complex interrelationships among agricultural production methods, international trade and pricing of commodities, community goals and values, and application of different types of technologies.

So ethanol alone isn't the answer. While investments in renewable energy technologies play their part, finding ways to reduce energy consumption is an integral part of any strategy towards sustainability. Environmental benefits of an ethanol industry are more likely to be realized if it is developed as part of an overall strategy to decrease fossil fuel usage and shift toward energy conservation/renewable energy production, including decentralized production of domestically produced renewable fuel such as ethanol, wind power generation, solar power generation, and power co-generation projects. Potential social and economic and environmental benefits depend more upon the industrial model used rather than the product being developed.

While there is growing interest in ethanol as an "environmentally-friendly" fuel, there are also some environmental concerns associated with the production of ethanol.An excerpt (PDF)from the US Sierra Club Prairie Chapter newletter also identifies some of these concerns.

In particular, large-scale feedlots, combined with ethanol production facilities have serious implications for water supply, groundwater contamination, and air pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions. The potential environmental damage that could be caused by these intensive livestock operationscould outweigh any environmental benefit gained from an ethanol industry.

The production of ethanol uses renewable biomass energy sources, but that alone does not make the industry sustainable.

Minnesota's success with rural economic development through the community driven, farmer-owned expansion of its ethanol industry is often used to describe what is possible in Saskatchewan. At the same time, however, "economies of scale" in production, jobs for rural communities (versus primarily local ownership of production as in Minnesota), and development of a massive ethanol export industry are also being given as goals for industry expansion in Saskatchewan.

The potential environmental, economic and social benefits of an expanded ethanol industry will depend on the industry development model chosen by government. Plans for ethanol production put forward in both Saskatchewan and Alberta are being strongly opposed by farmers groups (PDF)such as the National Farmers Union.

There are those who are concerned with the information distortion regarding the costs and benefits of industries relying on government transfers. You may want to read a case study (PDF)involving the ethanol industry in the United States.