Democrats Stall on Ethanol Plans

As lawmakers limber up to debate the energy package in the House this week, one of the lynchpins of recent US energy policy is conspicuously absent from the agenda: Barring a last-minute amendment, the new legislation will make no attempt to promote ethanol production.

And that’s a big deal. Ethanol is at the core of the White House’s plans to reduce US gas consumption by one-fifth over the next ten years, and until now Congress has been willing to play along. The Senate’s version of the energy package requires a six-fold increase in 

America’s renewable fuel production to 36 billion gallons by 2022. Similar measures were expected from the House. Instead, by passing over ethanol altogether (for now, at least), Nancy Pelosi’s crew has given a boost to those with misgivings about the technology, and raised questions about the future of America’s burgeoning ethanol sector.

The move comes at a time when biofuels—once heralded as a consequence-free, green alternative to fossil fuels—are under fire everywhere from the Wall Street Journal to Rolling Stone. 

Increasingly, it’s becoming clear that unfettered ethanol production has the potential to become a problem in its own right: Biofuels require huge amounts of water, energy, and arable land, and production on an industrial scale can lead to deforestation and rising food prices. Worse still, corn ethanol—the kind produced and heavily subsidized in the US—requires so much energy to farm and refine that it leads to only minimal reductions in overall carbon emissions.

Environmentalists hope that the Democratic leadership’s reluctance to wrap an ethanol mandate into the energy package is a sign that Big Ethanol’s lobbyists are losing momentum, and that lawmakers are beginning to seriously reconsider the role of biofuels in America’s long-term energy strategy. Nixing ethanol production altogether isn’t a viable option, but by snubbing it at this stage, House Democrats would be well-placed to push for stricter environmental protections as they thrash out a compromise with the Senate.

But while Democrats are certainly starting to pay more attention to the concerns of environmental and agricultural lobbies, they had other reasons to avoid an ethanol vote: Any discussion of alternative fuels would have risked sparking a potentially divisive debate on liquified coal, the super-polluting oil alternative favored by many coal-state Democrats. With Rick Boucher, chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, already pledging to include a biofuel mandate in climate-change legislation due later this year, the Democratic leadership may simply have decided to take the easy way out.