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NAHA, Okinawa Pref. (Kyodo) Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Toshihiro Nikai has pledged a government effort to spearhead development of ethanol in Okinawa as part of the industrial promotion policy for the area.

Nikai vowed cooperation in ethanol development during a meeting Tuesday with Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine and said at a symposium afterward in Naha that the central government will first consider utilizing Okinawa sugar cane to produce the plant-based fuel before examining the possibility of importing it from Brazil, one of the world’s largest producers of ethanol.

“We want to place ethanol at the center of our new energy strategy, but at present we face challenges such as high production costs compared with gasoline, insufficient infrastructure for distribution and difficulties in securing stable supplies,” Nikai said.

“The central government should give special consideration in promoting the fuel and maybe the government could cover costs to prepare tanks to accommodate it” at gas stations, he said.

In a related move Wednesday, Nikai inspected facilities on the island of Miyakojima that produce ethanol from sugar cane and mix the fuel with gasoline for use in vehicles.

Ethanol is considered a promising alternative to fossil fuel amid the recent surge in crude oil prices.

Brazil is the world’s largest ethanol producer, with an annual output of about 15 million kiloliters, and it is the only country that exports it. Japan and Brazil have set up a study group on trading the fuel.

Japan currently uses ethanol only in experiments for demonstration but aims to eventually increase its use as a way of achieving its Kyoto Protocol commitments to cut carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.

Fuel made from sugar cane and corn helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions because when burned it releases only carbon dioxide that was already absorbed by the plants.

The Petroleum Association of Japan, an industry group of oil wholesalers, has set a goal of using about 360,000 kiloliters of ethanol in fiscal 2010 to contribute to the Kyoto effort.

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