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On the other hand, if the true energy gain of ethanol is at the low side of the confidence limits — only five percent — all those results are divided by five and ethanol looks like a make-work program that only a politician could love. If all the ethanol production were used to reduce Persian Gulf imports, the reduction would amount to 7.4 percent. Moreover, natural-gas supplies are at least as tight as petroleum supplies.

Ethanol proponents might argue here that energy required to manufacture ethanol comes primarily from coal and natural gas, and relatively little from crude oil, so, in effect, it provides a way of running cars on coal and natural gas instead of oil. This is certainly the hope of the Detroit automakers who lobbied for the ethanol provision; they have big bets on SUVs that sell poorly in times of gas-price shocks. The mandate of 7.5 billion gallons by 2012 is based on volume.

Now, with gasoline prices high and more people concerned about global warming, Congress has gotten brave enough to bring ethanol in the front door, in broad daylight, with mandates. In fact, some studies have concluded that making ethanol from agricultural crops requires more energy than is contained in the finished product.

Farm-raising our own energy independence is a seductive idea, better yet if it comes with a clean-burning fuel. Let's examine the various promises for ethanol one by one, to see if it can deliver. There is no academic agreement on this point, and small differences in assumptions can profoundly alter the conclusions.

MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether) was the first choice of oxygenates, but since it contributed to ground-water contamination, ethanol became the fallback. About 18 of those petroleum quads were refined into gasoline.

However, feedback-fuel-metering systems, which self-adjust to operate at a fixed mixture regardless of fuel composition, became the norm roughly 20 years ago. If we continue to use gasoline at no more than the 2004 rate — a fair assumption if prices stay high — the ethanol mandate by 2012 will stretch those 18 quads of gasoline with five percent by volume of ethanol, or 0.6 quad, give or take due to rounding.

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The 551-page Energy Policy Act of 2005, signed last August, includes many sops to a blur of special interests, but one single provision rang the bell for automakers, greenies, and farmers, and for a broad coalition of ordinary motorists who were hoping for something, anything, to bring down gasoline prices; starting in 2006, the average gallon of "gas" will contain 2.78-percent ethanol.

And it's a mandate that keeps on giving, at least to the farm states, as it ratchets up the ethanol quota, nearly doubling it over the next six years - from 4.0-billion gallons in 2006 to 7.5-billion in 2012.


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