PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES DIFFER SHARPLY ON ETHANOL
By Dennis T. Avery
At the gas pump, Consumer Reports in 2006 found it cost the customer 37 percent more to run a flex-fuel SUV with an 85 percent ethanol fuel blend. The ethanol was more expensive than gasoline and delivers 35 percent less energy per gallon.
Worse, Science has recently published studies from Princeton and the University of Minnesota that found clearing more forest or grasslands for biofuel crops releases huge amounts of the carbon stored naturally in native soils. The study from Princeton University found “corn based ethanol . . . nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years.” Anyone who’s visited corn country in the past two years knows that every scrap of potential corn land has been planted, and the farmers are sharpening their chainsaws to clear the woodlot in the corner of the farm.
If more corn ethanol means higher fuel costs and more American forests cleared for corn, will an expanded ethanol mandate produce a popular backlash against both ethanol and corn farmers? The European Union is already proposing to cut its newly installed biofuel mandates from 10 percent of transport fuel in 2020 to 6 percent.
Not to mention that all biofuels will essentially have to be grown on “converted” cropland — because global food and feed demand will double over the next 40 years. We’ve got to feed the last surge of population growth, and another surge of poor people getting rich enough to demand chicken, ice cream, and pet food.
Barack Obama says we not only need more ethanol, we need it produced by farmer-owned cooperatives in the small towns and cities across the Corn Belt. He’d require the oil companies to slash the carbon emissions of their fuels by 20 percent by 2020 — prodding not only more ethanol consumption, but also higher corn and ethanol prices.
Farmers, themselves, are split right down the middle. Corn farmers love the ethanol mandates. However, many ethanol plants are currently shut down because they’ve driven up corn prices beyond the processors’ profit margin. Livestock and poultry producers warn that meat, milk, and eggs are likely to become Sunday-only luxury foods again, as they were during the Great Depression.
McCain would eliminate the federal mandates, letting corn farmers compete without much risk of serious food price inflation.
One other danger for the farmers: Obama says he wants lots of small-city ethanol plants owned by the farmers, encouraged by his low-carbon fuel mandate. He’d offer tax credits. But, at the same time, he’d subsidize the development of cellulosic ethanol. If that’s successful, the cellulose would then compete with corn. Switchgrass and wood chips would be produced in drier regions, on cheaper land that can’t grow corn. That could threaten bankruptcy for the very corn ethanol plants encouraged by the Obama tax credits.
Of course, during the next President’s term, the world’s temperatures may continue their sharp decline of the past 18 months. The falling temperatures were not predicted by the global climate models, but have been predicted by the sunspot index since 2000. With falling temperatures, the ethanol question may quickly fade from public concern, as we burn coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear fuels instead.
American Government & the U.S. Presidency:
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Dennis T. Avery is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., and is the Director of the Institute's Center for
Global Food Issues (www.cgfi.org). Formerly he was a senior policy analyst for the United
States Department of State, where he won the National Intelligence Medal of Achievement. He is the co-author, with
atmospheric physicist Fred Singer, of the book, Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1500 Years (Blue Ridge Summit,
Pennsylvania: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006). Avery's book, Saving the Planet With Pesticides and Plastic: The Environmental
Triumph of High-Yield Farming (Washington, D.C.: Hudson Institute, 1995), continues to be popular as a readable overview
of realistic agriculture for the future and for today. Readers may write Avery at Post Office Box 202, Churchville, Virginia, 24421.
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