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The big news north of the (U.S.) border is that Québec’s government has decided that there is no future in corn ethanol.

As explained in an article posted on Canada’s Cyberpresse website, back in May 2005 Québec’s then Minister for Agriculture, Yvon Vallières, gave a green light, “for obvious economic and ecological reasons,” to the construction of the first plant to manufacture ethanol from corn kernels, in the town of Varennes.

However, during an emission of the Enquête television program (click to view) on Radio-Canada last Thursday evening, Québec’s Minister for Natural Resources, Claude Béchard, promised that the 120-million-litre-per year Varennes plant would be the first and the last of its kind. “It is necessary to turn to other [feedstock] sources,” he said. No other ethanol factory based on corn will be built in Québec.

On Sunday, a leader in one of Montreal’s newspapers, The Gazette expressed satisfaction with the decision, declaring, “Backing away from ethanol makes sense.”

This impressive reversal of policy, which seems to have pitted the ministries for Agriculture and the Environment against each other, occurs at the time when more and more voices around the world — and in Québec — are speaking out against the diversion of corn for transport fuel.

Québec itself has precious little good arable land (mainly along the St. Lawrence River), and not everybody in la belle province is happy with devoting an increasing proportion of it to grow corn for biofuels. Québec’s Minister of Sustainable Development, Environment, and Parks, Line Beauchamp, has also expressed concerns over “the environmental impacts related to the intensive cultivation of corn.”

Moreover, earlier this year, an expert panel convened by Health Canada to look at the effects on air quality of ethanol blended fuels concluded that, well, it was pretty much a wash:

Some of the observed air quality benefits of ethanol-blend fuel include reduced emissions of carbon monoxide (CO) and exhaust hydrocarbons, and the displacement of some air toxics such as benzene. However, advances in emission control technology over the years have reduced the relative advantage of ethanol as a cleaner fuel. In addition, there are some concerns over potential human exposure to certain other emissions related to the use of ethanol-blend fuel (e.g., ethanol, acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, peroxyacetyl nitrate).

For now, Québec will retain its regulation that all gasoline contain 5 percent ethanol (by volume) by 2012, and the owner of the Varennes plant, GreenField Ethanol, will still benefit from various federal (up to C$0.10 per litre) and provincial (up to C$0.185 per litre, but only if the price of crude oil drops) production subsidies for ethanol. The province will also continue to support pilot projects to produce ethanol from cellulose material (Québec produces a lot of forest waste) and household waste.

The Gazette is not impressed, however. “Instead of flirting with absurd five-per-cent solutions,” it writes, “Québec should put its efforts into conservation. The way to reduce emissions is to reduce use, and higher fuel prices and tougher efficiency standards will accomplish that.”