CommentaryI used to think converting corn to ethanol to make fuel for autos didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Not anymore.

You’ve heard the anti-ethanol arguments. It costs too much. It takes more energy to make than you get out of it. Few people put E85 (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline) in their tank because few stations sell it.

Well guess what? The world changed a lot in the last year. Oil prices shot up to $60 a barrel and are likely to go higher. Hurricane Katrina showed just how vulnerable our energy supplies are. And tremendous strides are being made on the ethanol-production front.

A little-noticed aspect of the energy bill that passed last summer is that it commits the U.S. to using 7.5 billion gallons (28 billion L) of renewable fuels by 2012. That would account for about 5% of our transportation energy needs. A small start, but a very important one. And ethanol likely will be the predominant renewable fuel that meets that mandate.

Years ago, the farm lobby wrangled a loophole into the Corporate Average Fuel Economy law which allows any auto maker to count a vehicle that can run on E85 as getting 75 mpg (3.1L/100 km), even though ethanol contains less energy than gasoline and actually yields lower fuel economy.

GM, Ford and Chrysler took full advantage of this loophole. They began making millions of cars and trucks that are capable of running on E85. In fact, they couldn’t meet the fuel economy standards without production of these E85-capable vehicles.

The only problem, of course, is few consumers know if their vehicle is E85 capable, and fewer still know where to buy the stuff. But that’s changing. When gasoline prices skyrocketed last summer, so did demand for ethanol.

More importantly, the ethanol-making process has improved significantly. The Broin Companies came up with a breakthrough that eliminates a “cooking†step, using far less energy and yielding much more ethanol.

Also, a byproduct of converting corn to ethanol is grain feed for cattle. In fact, by bulk, the process yields much more feed, and there is a ready market for it. Ironically, it also yields carbon dioxide, which is captured and sold to make a variety of other products, including carbonated soda.

Don’t let that aspect scare you. As corn grows, it absorbs CO2. So most environmentalists see a corn-based fuel as CO2 neutral, something that even hybrid-electric vehicles can’t claim – unless they run on ethanol.

All cars can run on 10% ethanol. It now is being used to replace the banned oxygenate methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE) as a means of boosting octane and reducing emissions due to problems with MTBE leaking into ground water from underground storage tanks.

But the most intriguing aspect of ethanol is that few foreign auto makers offer E85-capable vehicles. So if it really catches on, it would hand Detroit’s Big Three a massive advantage in the marketplace. It’s been a long, long time since they’ve had such an opportunity.

The ethanol lobby now is clamoring for more stringent mandates on renewable fuels. Detroit, jump on the bandwagon.Â

John McElroy is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of “Autoline Detroit†for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit and Speed Channel.