Barack’s biofuel blooper

It didn’t take long for the Democrats’ golden boy to pick up a tarnish. First, Barack Obama did a whopping and entirely self-interested U-turn, declining public funding for the general election after repeatedly promising otherwise. Then, last week, the New York Times rolled out a reminder that even on environmental issues, the Democratic nominee isn’t beyond reproach: his campaign has deep and troubling ties to the corn ethanol lobby.

When Obama campaigns in the corn belt, the Times reports, he often brings along his friend Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader, who now serves on the boards of three ethanol companies and works as a policy adviser to renewable energy providers. Obama’s chief adviser on energy and environmental issues, Jason Grumet, previously worked for the National Commission on Energy Policy, a Daschle project with ties to the ethanol industry. And Obama himself has cozied up to corn ethanol, courting controversy early in his Senate career by accepting subsidized travel on jets owned by Archer Daniels Midland, the country’s largest ethanol producer.           

That might help explain Obama’s misguided stance on corn ethanol: He’s declared his support for the multibillion dollar subsidies currently propping up the industry, and for the appalling 54-cent-a-gallon import tariff on sugarcane ethanol, which is both cheaper and more efficient than corn-based biofuels. This is, of course, one of the few areas of environmental policy in which John McCain’s instincts are better than Obama’s; the GOP nominee is a longtime opponent of corn-ethanol subsidies, and as a fan of free trade also opposes import tariffs.

As a senator from Illinois - America’s number-two corn state - Obama is undoubtedly familiar with the economic realities of corn ethanol: that it’s good for a handful of heavily subsidized farmers and entrepreneurs, and bad for both the environment and the American consumer. Still, political imperatives look likely to take precedence for the foreseeable future: Corn-rich Iowa was the only state besides New Mexico that switched from the Democratic to the Republican column in the 2004 election, and Obama is determined to flip it back.

As long as John McCain’s energy policies continue to focus on piffle-like gas tax holidays, better battery competitions, and off-shore drilling, Obama’s pandering on corn ethanol probably won’t do his electoral prospects much harm. But it’s a timely reminder, at least, that the Republicans don’t hold a total monopoly on environmental wrong-headedness.

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