In a front-page report today, the New York Times points out how heavily Sen. Barack Obama relies on people with ties to the ethanol industry.
The article also succinctly contrasts the policies of Obama and Sen. John McCain on the alternative fuel. McCain wants to kill the federal subsidy for ethanol and remove the tariff on imports of foreign ethanol, whereas Obama favors the subsidies and would keep the tariff.
Ethanol can be made from many plants. Brazil has a booming industry in sugar ethanol, and scientists are working on ways to transform currently valueless crops like switchgrass into cellulosic ethanol. But the United States currently gets its ethanol almost exclusively from corn, and that means ethanol politics is corn politics.
The promise of renewable fuels is potent: Rather than digging up a limited supply of hydrocarbons that have been buried for millions of years, we can burn fuel created by the sun each season. And, not insignificantly, we can do it domestically.
That's the promise. In reality, ethanol particularly corn-based ethanol is a deeply flawed fuel.
A report released last year by Food & Water Watch, the Network for New Energy Choices and the Vermont Law School Environmental Law Center described these problems with corn-based ethanol:
Not all bio-fuels are equal. Corn, which is the source of 95% of ethanol in the U.S., is among the least efficient, least sustainable biofuels. Cellulosic ethanol, while not yet ready for market, has more favorable energy ratios than corn and presents more room for productivity gains, making it appealing to investors, farmers and refiners. Yet, most biofuels policies being debated in Congress would primarily benefit corn ethanol refiners in the near future.
Corn ethanol has little promise of reducing U.S. fossil fuel emissions. Even if the entire U.S. corn crop was dedicated to ethanol, it would displace less than 15 percent of national gasoline use. But a modest increase in auto fuel efficiency standards, such as those passed by the Senate last month, would cut petroleum consumption by more than all alternative fuels and replacement fuels combined.
The current path of corn-ethanol based biofuels is unsustainable. Using coal to power ethanol refineries can increase emissions in comparison to the gasoline fuel replaced. And since corn production uses more than twice the amount of pesticides than any other major U.S. crop, uncontrolled ethanol industry growth could exponentially increase environmental toxins.
Even large-scale development of cellulosic ethanol is plagued by potential environmental problems. Turning cellulose into fuel, for instance, would require a huge expenditure of increasingly scarce water resources and the mass production of cellulosic ethanol would likely impact soil quality and convert land currently in conservation programs.
Ethanol is not the solution to revitalizing rural America. While higher commodity prices and cooperatively owned ethanol refineries could be a boon to independent farmers, unregulated ethanol industry growth will further concentrate agribusiness, threatening the livelihood of rural communities.
Despite these problems, some see corn-based ethanol as a necessary stepping stone to better biofuels. By investing in this alternative now, America will build the infrastructure and know-how for next-generation biofuels that can be grown and processed more efficiently.
Whether or not ethanol proves to be the answer to U.S. transportation needs, conservation and efficient use of fuel will no doubt become increasingly important as oil prices continue to rise. Any energy policy that focuses only on supply of whatever fuel and ignores demand, is deeply flawed. Both candidates have laid out policies that would improve fuel economy and encourage the development of battery-powered and other alternative vehicles.
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