Southland panel rejects funds for ethanol fueling stations

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A regional panel Thursday turned down nearly $11 million in federal stimulus dollars targeted to build 55 ethanol fueling stations across Southern California, saying it had policy concerns about ethanol as an alternative to gasoline.

Corn-based ethanol causes more harm than good for the environment because it has to be trucked from farms in the Midwest, said council members of the Southern California Assn. of Governments.

Several also voiced concern that the council’s usual process for submitting grant applications had not been followed, and that the funds would be contracted to a single recipient, San Diego-based Pearson Fuels.

“We’re saying no to money from Washington,” said Thomas Buckley, a Lake Elsinore representative. “It probably doesn’t happen too often.”

Paul Wuebben, a clean fuels officer for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, urged the council to accept the dollars. Ethanol is not perfect, he said, but its wider use would reduce dependence on gasoline and remove pollutants from the air.

About 500,000 vehicles in California are equipped to run on the ethanol blend that would have become more widely available if the stations were built, Wuebben told the panel.

He called the panel’s decision a “major lost opportunity for the region.” The infrastructure created by the ethanol stations could evolve over time to accommodate fuels made from other stocks. Stations could also be adapted for electric/flexible-fuels hybrid vehicles that are expected to become more popular on the market, Wuebben said.

Mike Lewis, chief of Pearson Fuels, said the project is dead without the grants. It would have created 221 jobs, he said. “Dependence on foreign oil is the result of 1,000 little decisions and a few big decisions,” he said. “This was a big decision.”

The $10.9-million project was at first approved by the regional governments association in November and was set to be administered by Clean Cities, a government-industry coalition sponsored by the Department of Energy.

Thursday’s vote came after the association’s executive committee asked the wider panel to reconsider its decision. Lewis told council members that the project’s fuel, a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline, would remove 27,000 tons of greenhouse gases from the air and eliminate the need for 700 million gallons of petroleum.

But a majority of the panel could not be swayed.

“We agree to reduce dependence on foreign oil,” said Keith Millhouse, a Moorpark representative and chairman of the Metrolink governing board. “This methodology, while well intended, is a bad way to go.”

Last year there were 1,950 fueling stations nationwide offering so-called E-85 ethanol fuels. In the six-county Southern California region, there are six.