Gun rights, tax cuts, and right-to-life enjoy only slim majorities in this sessions all-Republican Congress. If only they had the clout of big ethanol, which controls nearly enough votes to add an amendment to the Constitution.
Six recent votes on the energy bill in the U.S. Senate (S. 14) demonstrate the muscle of farmers and the companies that simultaneously pocket subsidies and tax credits for producing the fuel additive.
Thanks to those votes, those companies-Archer Daniels Midland, Williams Bio-Energy, Cargill and others-will now also profit from a huge increase in the nationwide mandate for ethanol use-essentially a decade-long guarantee of additional income, backed by the U.S. government.
A Complete Waste
Ethanol-supposedly an environmentally friendly additive to gasoline-is produced from the millions of unnecessary surplus acres of corn that are still grown in the U.S. because of federal agricultural subsidies.
The ethanol mandate is only partly the result of left-wing pressure to clean the environment. Rather it is the culmination of decades of irrational farm policy. To make matters worse, the conservatives who should oppose it on philosophical grounds, are mostly from the farm states that benefit from it.
Attempts in the Senate to remove or even slightly weaken the energy bills massive five billion gallon-mandate for ethanol use by 2012 were easily turned back by majorities of 69, 58 and 60 votes. The numbers would have been larger in some cases, except that the four Democratic senators running for President-all of whom are competing in the Iowa caucuses and so are now pro-ethanol-were out of town.
The Bush Administration, looking ahead to the Presidents 2004 electoral chances in farm states such as Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, and Illinois, is loath to cross the ethanol lobby. A career bureaucrat at the Environmental Protection Agency described to me the fierce resistance from Bush appointees to any serious study weighing the actual benefits of the gasoline additive.
According to its supporters, ethanol will reduce pollution, make America less dependent on foreign oil, and even-according to one highly questionable leaflet from the National Corn Growers Association-reduce the price of gasoline at the pump.
It sounds too good to be true, and it is. Thats why one prominent conservative senator cursed as he voted for ethanol, telling a staffer he would have gone the other way except for the deal between the White House and the Republican congressional leadership.
Another senator took the ethanol vote as an occasion to lecture staffers on the need to compromise ones principles occasionally in order to make deals and get things done.
So is ethanol good for anything? David Pimentel, a professor of Entomology at Cornell University, answers the question with another one. “If ethanol is so great,” he asks, “why are we subsidizing it?”
The point being that without subsidies, no one would produce it, and without mandates, no one would use it.
Indeed, even rational environmentalists do not promote it. They believe that the massive amount of herbicides, pesticides and nitrogen fertilizer that goes into the production of surplus corn for ethanol far outweighs any positive environmental impact from burning ethanol-tainted gasoline.
Pimentel, who has published several papers on ethanol in peer-reviewed journals, maintains that it is also a net negative in terms of energy use.
It is physically impossible, he said, for the United States to farm itself to energy self-sufficiency. Once the huge quantity of gasoline used to farm corn-which involves plowing, sowing, fertilizing, irrigating, harvesting, and producing, shipping and maintaining farm machines-is taken into account, ethanol amounts to a net consumption of energy.
In other words, when you pay higher prices at the pump for gasoline mixed with ethanol, you are not paying for nothing. You are paying for less than nothing.
And even though ethanol decreases carbon monoxide emissions, it increases nitrous oxide emissions-that is, smog. So in the name of the environment, the government requires drivers to pollute the environment with ethanol.
“You cant stop this juggernaut,” said Pimentel. “Its politics and big money. And science cant compete.”
The opposition consisted of an unlikely alliance between mountain state conservatives and coastal liberals-who suddenly appeared to believe in free markets, and to oppose government-enforced wealth transfers.
“To force ethanol on areas that could do it better in other ways is not free market,” said ultra-liberal Sen. Chuck Schumer (D.-N.Y.). “Mr. John Q. Smith of New York, Miss Mary E. Jones of Oregon, Miss Young Teenager who just learned to drive from Denver, Colorado-they must use ethanol even if it costs more.”
If only he would think along those lines more often.
Even those opposing ethanol did not dare question the fuel additives environmental benefits, but only attacked the federal mandate to use it.
“Im not opposed to ethanol,” said Sen. Craig Thomas (R.-Wyo.). “We ought to be encouraging its use, but I dont agree with requiring five billion gallons.”
Sen. George Allen (R.-Va.) expressed a wish for at least a small bit of state flexibility, rather than the iron-fisted federal mandate. “These mandates force everyone into the same regime, whether or not it makes any economic sense, any scientific sense, or any environmental sense.”