Ethanol means renewable energy and a domestic source of automobile fuel, but in America it also means corn, at least for now. And that means ethanol is a devils bargain.
Corn requires so much fertilizer much of it derived from natural gas and pesticides, derived from chemicals that corn-based ethanol is only marginally less polluting than oil. Even if every arable acre of land in the United States was planted with corn, it would produce only about 12% of the gasoline we burn today.
Congressional mandates for corn-based ethanol led Heartland farmers to plant more acres of corn than at any time in decades. That contributed to a near-record dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, a lifeless area the size of New Jersey that forms when fertilizer discharges from Mississippi Valley farms.
Still, ethanol is seen as a fuel of the future, and many see corn-based ethanol, with all its problems, as a stepping-stone to renewable fuels made from better stocks. Cellulosic ethanol can be made from grasses, waste wood and other crops grown on marginal lands with little or no need for fertilizers and pesticide. Many still believe in the promise of homegrown fuel.
Corn-based ethanol, as imperfect a fuel as it is, is easy for politicians to love. Corn growers are a powerful and generous lobby, and many voters don't look past the sweet-sounding "renewable fuel" language to understand the trade-offs. Add on the real potential for developing ethanol from wiser sources than from corn, and you've got a political perfect storm that has already resulted in subsidies and rules to encourage domestic ethanol production, and tariffs to restrict importation of foreign ethanol. Leaders have these strings to pull.
While Obama often acknowledges that cellulosic ethanol is a more attractive alternative fuel than is corn-based ethanol, he has been criticized for taking his cues on ethanol and farm policy from the corn growers who have contributed to his campaigns as an Illinois Democrat. He has advisers to his campaign with strong ties to the ethanol industry, and he would maintain subsidies and tariffs that support the industry. During the early days of his race for the Democratic nomination, he published a detailed energy plan that included the goal of producing 60 billion gallons by 2030 and transforming the entire U.S. vehicle fleet to run on E85 ethanol blends of gasoline. The word "ethanol" is now hard to find on Obama's Website.
McCain has opposed subsidies for corn growers at times, and though he's waffled somewhat on the issue as a candidate, he has talked about opposing subsidies for corn growers. He strongly opposes the tariff on Brazilian ethanol, which protects domestic corn growers. In general, he supports the use of ethanol and the development of cellulosic ethanol, but doesn't lay out many specifics about the issue in his Lexington Project energy plan.
Enter your city or zip code to get your local temperature and air quality and find local green food and recycling resources near you.