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Brazil Is World's Ethanol Superpower

In an agroindustrial complex ringed by fields of 12-foot-high sugar cane, a giant mechanical claw dumps stalks by the tons into an even larger crushing machine. Here's where the renewable fuel used to power seven of every 10 new Brazilian cars gets its start.

Sugary slurry flows into a row of gleaming stainless steel distilling tanks, transforming cane harvested only hours earlier by machete-wielding farm laborers into ethanol, the alternative fuel now promoted by President Bush to end what he calls America's addiction to imported oil.

While Mr. Bush set 2025 as the target date for replacing three-fourths of the oil imported from the Middle East with American ethanol, Brazil already satisfies nearly half of its domestic passenger vehicle fuel demand with ethanol.

After decades of government intervention and subsidies, the industry here is a thriving free market business, complete with ethanol pumps at every filling station in Latin America's largest country. Millions of cars run on either ethanol, gas or any combination of the two. And there's plenty more land available for sugar cane cultivation as the planet's biggest sugar producer gears up to become its undisputed long-term ethanol supplier.

Brazilian ethanol producers and international energy experts agree that the United States will probably never come close to reaching Brazil's potential as an ethanol superpower. But they say Brazil offers clear lessons on how to boost domestic ethanol use.

What the United States needs most, they say, are more cars that run on the fuel — and filling stations that offer it.

"Petroleum is almost history," warned Celso dos Santos, commercial director of the Cocamar farmers cooperative that owns the Sao Tome distillery. "People stopped using wood for fuel and replaced it with coal. Then came petroleum, but we're getting to the end of the petroleum era."

With the sickly scent of pure alcohol wafting through the air around the Cocamar plant, a thousand workers toil around the clock during the March to November cane harvest season, distilling 92,500 gallons of ethanol daily that is trucked away for immediate sale at the pumps.

Sugarcane waste is burned to generate steam for the turbines, meeting all the plant's electricity needs. Excess power will soon light up half the homes in Sao Tome, a southern Brazilian town of 6,000 people.

The technology isn't even cutting edge, but the industry is making profits like never before and has a bright future thanks to a 1970s decision by Brazil's former military dictators to subsidize ethanol production and require distribution at every gas station.

A 1980s Brazilian fad with cars that ran only on ethanol petered out when oil prices fell in the early 1990s. But the fuel came back into vogue in 2003, when automakers started rolling out cars that run on gasoline, ethanol or any combination of the two. With international oil prices reaching record highs, Brazilian drivers turned to "flex-fuel" cars, buying ethanol at half the price of gas until late last year.

Some experts predict flex-fuel car sales will reach 90 percent of Brazil's new car market within several years, while others say recent ethanol price hikes could keep penetration at the current level.

Getting a fraction of that acceptance in the United States could take decades, analysts say, even with new incentives and regulations.

"Since the government does not dictate what happens in the marketplace, the process will be much slower than what Brazil experienced," said Amani Elobeid, an economist and international sugar analyst at Iowa State University.

A small but growing percentage of American-made vehicles are manufactured to run on the U.S. version of ethanol called E85, which is 85 percent alcohol distilled from corn and 15 percent gasoline. But many American drivers don't even know their vehicles can run on E85, and the fuel is available at only 610 American filling stations.

Brazil's state-imposed pump price for gasoline includes much higher taxes than the price U.S. consumers pay. Gas in Brazil now costs the equivalent of $4.69 per gallon. Pure ethanol — taxed at slightly lower levels and cheaper to produce — goes for about $3.59 per gallon at all of the nation's 30,000 stations. It fueled 48 percent of Brazil's passenger vehicles last year.

Meanwhile, Brazil is trying to encourage ethanol use in countries from Asia to Europe.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said in Britain this week that Brazil wants "to plant the oil of the future" and promote radical changes in how world generates energy.

Brazilian ethanol makers intent on boosting exports have been beaming ever since Mr. Bush used his January State of the Union address to plug ethanol.

"We felt that in our share price," said a smiling Paulo Diniz, chief financial officer of Grupo Cosan, Brazil's largest ethanol producer and the world's second largest after the U.S.-based Archer Daniels Midland Co.

A few years ago, Cosan was lucky to host a tour every four or five months for big foreign investors. Now the firm gets visits every two weeks, including a VIP tour in February for Google Inc. billionaires Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Cosan is considering an initial public offering on Wall Street within the next year and a half, Diniz said. Other foreign companies may consider jumping on the bandwagon by buying Brazilian ethanol firms.

"Phones have been ringing all over the world after Mr. Bush spoke," said Cristoph Berg, an ethanol analyst with Germany's F.O. Licht, a commodities research firm. Investors "are waking up to the notion that ethanol really seems to have entered the mainstream."

Brazil's ethanol experience hasn't been so rosy for consumers in recent months. Prices surged during the annual November-March production lull while the cane grew. Ethanol remains cheaper than gas, but flex-fuel car drivers can get better fuel efficiency with gas when the price difference between the two narrows significantly.

In Sao Tome, the cooperative that owns the ethanol distillery is betting on its best profits since it bought the operation in 1993. Cocamar's production cost is $1.10 per gallon, and wholesalers are buying the fuel for $2.68— up from $1.44 last year.

About the only thing that could hurt Brazil's ethanol industry now would be an almost unimaginable plunge in international crude oil prices, currently trading above $60 per barrel, said Almir Hawthorne, the distillery's industrial manager.

"Oil could drop to $35 or $40 per barrel, and ethanol producers would still make money."

By Alan Clendenning

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