Deposing King Corn

Corn ethanol advocates have had a rough ride lately. Lavish government subsidies and import tariffs got the industry off the ground, but also led producers to flood the market: Since last summer, the price of ethanol has plummeted from $5 a gallon to well under $2, prompting investors to head for the hills and leading to widespread speculation that the biofuel bubble might be about to burst once and for all.

That’s prompted the ethanol lobby to go back to doing what it knows best: asking Congress for handouts. Citing industry-sponsored research suggesting that ethanol gives better mileage than conventional gasoline - maybe, for some cars, in some conditions - the ethanol lobby is asking lawmakers to approve new gasoline blends that would see regular cars filling up with 20 to 30 percent ethanol mixes.

But allowing producers to wheel out new biofuel blends could prove a costly mistake. Scientists say that because ethanol contains less energy than regular gasoline, it’s unlikely to actually yield better mileage. Meanwhile a growing body of evidence suggests that ordinary cars can release more greenhouse gases when filled up with high-ethanol blends; one report also links ethanol to increased ozone emissions.

And even if ethanol were the way forward, there would be good reasons not to produce it from corn, which has a relatively low energy content and requires vast amounts of water to grow. The Agriculture Department already projects that by 2010, ethanol will require almost a third of America’s total corn output - and provide less than 8 percent of the gasoline supply. Meanwhile the fatty leftovers from ethanol production - routinely resold as cattle feed - have now been linked to increased rates of E.coli infection in livestock. 

Over the past few years, Big Ethanol - and its corollary, Big Corn - have become as real a presence on Capitol Hill as the oil or energy lobbies; lawmakers now give oil companies a 51 cent per gallon subsidy to mix ethanol into their gasoline, while slapping a 54 cent per gallon tariff on imported ethanol to foster domestic corn ethanol plants.

Fortunately, there are signs that lawmakers may finally be abandoning their position as cheerleaders for corn ethanol: Last night, the Senate okayed legislation boosting ethanol production sevenfold - but required that the majority came from woodchips and other non-corn sources. The legislation is far from perfect - it will still see corn ethanol production double by 2022 - but it’s a far cry, thankfully, from the Christmas bonus corn-ethanol producers had been hoping for.

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I wish commentators, such as Ben Whitford, would stop being so critical and absolutist. True; corn is probably not the solution for renewable or alternative energy. It is, though, a step in the direction. Why doesn't anyone at least acknowledge that?

Also, why doesn't anyone ever comment on the sugar tariffs?

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