What? Those Magic Beans Called ‘Ethanol’? Never Mind
by Vin Suprynowicz
For decades, sensible skeptics have warned that government tariffs and subsidies designed to encourage the conversion of corn to alcohol and requiring fuel distributors to mix this corrosive stuff into our gas tanks was not going to “solve the energy crisis,” reduce dependence on imported oil, or do anything helpful for “the environment” – unless by “the environment” you actually meant “the bank account of Archer-Daniels-Midland.”
If the critics failed to mention this expensive boondoggle could also promote starvation and food riots around the world, it was probably only because they were afraid of being ridiculed for “piling on.”
While both Congressional Democrats and Republicans were cheering a fivefold increase in mandated ethanol use as little as a year ago, and President Bush was calling the cornfuel program a key to his strategy to cut gasoline use by 20 percent by 2010, today The Great Ethanol Mandate seems to meet Count Galeazzo Ciano’s definition of an orphan. (“Victory has many fathers,” etc.)
Former “renewable fuels” champion Lester Brown now writes in the Washington Post “It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that food-to-fuel mandates have failed.”
“Our enthusiasm for corn ethanol deserves a second look,” said Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., in a House hearing Tuesday.
It’s hard to believe ethanol is getting “clobbered the way it’s getting clobbered right now” over something as insignificant as some starving Africans, says longtime champion Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.
Everyone knew all along it takes 1,700 gallons of water and 51 cents in tax credits to create one gallon of ethanol from corn – at which point the stuff still can’t compete without a 54-cents-a-gallon tariff to block the importation of cheaper sugar-cane ethanol from Brazil.
Everyone has long known we use up more petroleum-based fuel in trucks and tractors and distilleries to produce and transport ethanol than it ever saves us in the tank – and that (speaking of tanks) the stuff is meantime creating unmeasured private costs by rusting out our gas tanks and fuel lines.
It’s long been clear the 30 million acres of American farmland devoted to growing corn for ethanol this year will consume almost a third of America’s corn crop – driving up prices for meats and all other grains, worldwide – while yielding fuel amounting to less than 3 percent of our total petroleum consumption. (If cattle stop eating corn, you have to feed them something else, driving up the price of other grains, even if Sen. Grassley still can’t seem to figure that out.)
In December, the Congressional Research Service warned that even if we devoted every acre of American cornfields to ethanol production – at who knows what human cost in terms of world-wide hunger and starvation – it still wouldn’t be enough to meet current arbitrary and grossly optimistic federal mandates.
In February the journal Science reported “Corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20 percent savings, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years. …” (Not that this really matters, since current minimal rates of global warming are mostly caused by solar activity and other natural causes, and are a good thing, anyway. More food production.)
Forests? Being bulldozed for more corn production. O, Bambi and Thumper lovers, what hast thou wrought?
Suddenly, inspired by the sight of thoroughly predictable food-price riots overseas, political candidates who were happily hopping on the ethanol bandwagon as recently as 2006 are looking for a way out. Sen. Barack Obama said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that it may now be more important to help “people get something to eat” than to keep pushing the biofuels boondoggle up the hill.
“Corn ethanol was presented as an almost Holy Grail solution,” moaned Rep. Mike Doyle, D. Penn., this week. “But I believe its negatives today far outweigh its benefits. … We need to revisit this … and back away from the food-to-fuel policy.”
Would those be the same negatives I and the other skeptics have been warning about for years, Congressman? What did someone do in the interim, teach you simple arithmetic and Economics 101?
Meantime, the governor of Texas and 26 U.S. senators, including GOP presidential nominee-in-waiting John McCain, have asked the Environmental Protection Agency to cut in half this year’s requirement for 9 billion gallons of corn ethanol in order to ease the pressure on rising food costs.
That would be a start. But washing their hands and pretending they don’t know who gave birth to the biofuel boondoggle will not suffice. Congress needs to repeal the ethanol mandates, subsidies, and protective tariffs immediately. The congressmen need to admit they don’t know a darned thing about energy markets, and vow to stop using billions of our precious tax dollars meddling in matters they don’t understand.
Finally, investors and energy companies need to soberly review where it gets them to rush into programs that couldn’t possibly survive in the unmanipulated market, based on the promise that big federal subsidies are going to make everyone rich.
The old warning was “Remember Colorado oil shale.” The new one will now be “Remember ethanol.” But the lesson itself is the same: Depending on idiotic congressional enthusiasms is like trying to buy presents for the kids based on last year’s Christmas list. Best to double-check. By now they’ve probably outgrown the Lego set and the Chatty Cathy, and moved on.
That thing they left you holding? It’s called “the bag.”
May 14, 2008
Copyright © 2008 Vin Suprynowicz
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