Now: Gas From the Cornfield

GASOLINE is, one might say, as American as apple pie. But Mom's pie doesn't pollute the atmosphere unless she forgets to take it out of the oven.

Now, the United States and other nations, seeking less-polluting fuels, are slowly altering the recipe for gasoline (or petrol) in order to mitigate the problem. This move toward the addition of other substances into the fuel mix, particularly ethanol and methanol, is providing a significant bonus for Corn Belt farmers.

Corn is the principal source of ethanol, and agricultural leaders in Iowa, Ohio, and other corn-growing states already are benefiting from the move toward using "reformulated" gas. They see it helping to raise farm income by some $50 billion a year, creating new jobs and - most important overall - helping reduce the pollutants spewed into the atmosphere by gasoline-powered vehicles.

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President Bush approved the ethanol initiative before leaving office, although his Environmental Protection Agency administrator, William Reilly, had sought to delay action.

Carol Browner, President Clinton's new administrator of the EPA, has raised a caution signal while she and other members of the administration examine the practicality and cost of increasing the use of corn-based ethanol and/or petroleum-based methanol.

It is clear that these and other gasoline alternatives are gaining momentum. Oil producers and distributors are anxious about the impact of these developments on their industry and profits. Having held sway for so long in the energy field, it is natural for the petroleum industry to seek to protect its own interests.

But slowed consumption of the amount of oil in various fuel mixtures is not a bad result in conservation terms. The Clean Air Act of 1990 requires that reformulated gasoline be used in the nine most smoggy US cities, starting in 1995. It might not be a bad idea to speed up that timetable.

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