The rise and fall of ethanol

The Washington Times Weekly - - Editorials -

Barack Obama’s ethanol repo­si­tion­ing May 4 on NBC’s “Meet the Press” means that two of the three ma­jor pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates can now be ex­pected to re­think the U.S. gov­ern­ment’s ethanol poli­cies if elected. Even Hil­lary Clin­ton has edged closer to rea­son on the sub­ject. It only took food ri­ots around the world, surg­ing do­mes­tic food prices and a sum­mer gaso­line crunch to cause the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial front-run­ner to loose him­self from the ethanol lobby.

“What I’ve said is, my top pri­or­ity is mak­ing sure peo­ple are able to get enough to eat,” Mr. Obama told Tim Russert on NBC’s “Meet the Press” when asked about the con­nec­tion be­tween ris­ing food and en­ergy prices and U.S. ethanol poli­cies. “If it turns out we need to make changes in our ethanol pol­icy to help peo­ple get some­thing to eat, that has got to be the step we take.” Mr. Obama then inched oh-so-close to a firmer com­mit­ment to the needed ethanol jet­ti­son­ing. “We have ris­ing food prices around the United States. In other coun- tries, we’re see­ing ri­ots be­cause of the lack of food sup­ply, so this is some­thing we’re go­ing to have to deal with,” he said.

That sounds a new note for Mr. Obama. Pre­vi­ously, like al­most ev­ery other ma­jor pres­i­den­tial can­di­date who ever passed through ethanol-en­am­ored Iowa, the can­di­date had toed much closer to the ethanol lobby’s line. For in­stance, speak­ing at the chris­ten­ing of a new ethanol plant in Charles City, Iowa in Au­gust, Mr. Obama spoke grandly of the fuel’s con­tri­bu­tions to the United States and pledged it a role in his en­ergy pol­icy. Ethanol is “one of the big­gest suc­cess sto­ries in Amer­i­can man­u­fac­tur­ing,” Mr. Obama said. A com­pre­hen­sive en­ergy pol­icy would need to be mul­ti­fac­eted, he said. He pledged that “one part of that plan has to be ethanol.” Long live King Ethanol.

So, Mr. Obama joins Repub­li­can John McCain as a critic, though some­thing of a ginger critic, of the im­pact on ris­ing food and en­ergy prices. In fair­ness, Mr. Obama is not un­usu­ally pan­der-prone on this sub- ject. Mr. McCain is sim­ply the ex­cep­tion that proves the rule. His op­po­si­tion to ethanol sub­si­dies, which pre-dates his 2000 pres­i­den­tial can­di­dacy, nor­mally would have tor­pe­doed his vi­a­bil­ity if this pri­mary sea­son were more con­ven­tional. Mr. McCain placed a dis­tant third be­hind Mike Huck­abee and Mitt Rom­ney in the Jan. 3 Iowa cau­cus, in part be­cause of his ethanol record. It is most un­usual for a can­di­date to sur­vive such a poor per­for­mance in Iowa. But ow­ing to a quirky pri­mary sea­son, the anti-ethanol can­di­date has a chance. It is one of his few com­pelling eco­nomic call­ing cards.

Even Hil­lary Clin­ton has been repo­si­tion­ing on the sub­ject amid ris­ing food and en­ergy prices. She seems to be stick­ing closer to the ethanol lobby than Mr. Obama. Speak­ing on ABC’s “This Week,” Mrs. Clin­ton said that the is­sue needs closer re­view. But she did not com­mit to any pol­icy that would be anath­ema to the lobby. “What we need to do is ac­cel­er­ate the re­search into farm waste and into other cel­lu­losic plant ma­te­ri­als,” she said, “be­cause, I think, in­stead of us­ing the corn, let’s fig­ure out if we can use the corn­cob. Let’s fig­ure out if we can use the corn­stalk. Let’s fig­ure out what other kind of food, you know, waste we can use.” She then sig­naled a strange new re­spect for ethanol’s neg­a­tive im­pact on prices: “In the short run, we’ve got to work with our farm­ers and with like-minded peo­ple around the world to fig­ure out how this in­creas­ing use in bio­fu­els, which is part of our an­swer to our de­pen­dence on for­eign oil, does not un­der­mine food pro­duc­tion and re­ally ac­cel­er­ate the prices.” Will Mrs. Clin­ton be able to run this gaunt­let? Pub­lic in­ter­est will re­cede the mo­ment food and gas prices stop climb­ing steeply.

But, there is good news here. Both John McCain and Mr. Obama can now be rightly ac­cused of welch­ing on a cam­paign prom­ise in the event that ei­ther should refuse to fix the dis­as­ter that is the U.S. ethanol sub­sidy. It would surely be a big­ger welch from Mr. McCain, how­ever, whose record on the sub­ject is ex­ten­sive.

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