Ethanol Plan a Failure Germany Backs Away from Biofuels

Berlin has abandoned plans to increase the percentage of ethanol in gasoline sold at the country's pumps. New projections estimate that up to 3 million cars would have been unable to run on the higher mixture.

It is rare that a government minister is blasted for reaching a decision that virtually everyone agrees with. That, however, is the situation Germany's Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel finds himself in.

Gabriel, a Social Democrat, confirmed widespread speculation  on Friday that his ministry was turning away from plans to up the percentage of bioethanol in gasoline sold in Germany from its current 5 percent to 10 percent. The higher level was set to go into effect next January, but with new numbers indicating that up to 3 million cars would be unable to process the higher bioethanol mixture, Gabriel abandoned the plan.

"Environmental policy cannot be held responsible should millions of drivers be forced to buy supreme unleaded (which would not have been subject to the ethanol mixture regulation)," Gabriel told Friday's Bild Zeitung. "That's why I put a halt to the directive."

The original directive was based on projections provided by the German Association of the Automotive Industry, which predicted that only 1 percent of the 31 million gas-powered cars on German roads would be unable to process a mixture including 10 percent ethanol made from plants. This week, though, both Germany's car club ADAC and a group representing German automobile importers challenged that number and predicted that up to 3 million vehicles could be affected. Gabriel had said that, should the number of vehicles affected rise above 1 million, he would eliminate the directive.

Critique of the Environment Minister has been fierce. "Mr. Gabriel should spend less time on talk shows and more time in his ministry," Christian Democrat General Secretary Ronald Pofalla told the Neuen Rhein/Ruhr Zeitung. Bavarian Environment Minister Otmar Bernhard told the Passauer Neuen Presse that "the increase of the biofuel mixture is a climate policy fallacy promoted by (Gabriel)."

Still, most are pleased that the mixture increase has been thrown out. On the right side of the political spectrum, politicians and activists had been concerned that the directive would have meant higher costs for German drivers. On the left side, growing concern about the environmental impact of biofuels  had led many to call for a stop to their large-scale use in Germany. Many environmentalists have pointed out that a heavier emphasis on biofuels has resulted in the clearing of large swaths of rain forest in tropical countries to make way for biofuel crops.

Gabriel's about-face now raises the question of whether Germany will be able to achieve its ambitious climate protection goals, which call for biofuels to make up 20 percent of all fuel used in Germany by 2020. Carbon dioxide emissions from cars in Germany must also drop to an average of 120 grams per kilometer by 2012.

Gabriel hit back at his critics on Friday, saying he was not prepared to accept the "dishonesty in the public debate, particularly on the part of the conservatives." He pointed out that the CDU was intimately involved in the drafting of the regulation. He also said that the automobile industry must now make technical improvements to meet the emissions goals set forth by Berlin.