Where the Tall Corn Goes

Posted Jan. 28, 2011, at 4:57 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 28, 2011, at 6:28 p.m.

Forty percent of American corn goes into ethanol as a gasoline additive. Yet this Hamburger Helper-style mix reduces fuel mileage, has little effect on petroleum imports, causes little or no reduction in air pollution or greenhouse gases, raises food prices, and will cost taxpayers $30 billion in the next five years in ethanol subsidies,

Now the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has expanded this misuse of a vital farm product by increasing the ethanol proportion to 15 percent for cars and trucks with model years of 2001 and later. The EPA needed to increase the ethanol mix because demand was falling short of the man-dated ethanol production level that will rise to 36 billion gallons year by 2022.

This newest action by the EPA raised a storm of protest, although the National Corn Growers Association found it “welcome news.”

In Maine, Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat, said the richer mix could damage many cars and small engines, would take an enormous amount of fossil fuel to produce and “costs us billions of dollars in federal subsidies every year.” She said the coming system of different gas stations for the differ-ent ethanol mixtures would be confusing and would cause frequent misfueling.

Sen. Susan Collins said many Mainers have already had problems with the 10 percent ethanol gasoline in older cars, snowmobiles, snowblowers, boats and lawn mowers. She urged that the EPA “pull back and reconsider its plan that will rush El5 to market.”

ExxonMobil, in a company blog, complained about the tax credits for ethanol production and noted that subsidies for natural gas and petroleum are far less.

Popular Mechanics magazine said the new ruling was premature, since EPA had not finished testing the effect of the E15 fuel on older cars. Car & Driver said from the start that the EPA’s rule on alternative fuels “has no pollution benefit and has become nothing more than a backdoor mandate for the ethanol industry and corn farmers.”

These complaints, valid as they are, amount to little more than nipping at the heels of the ethanol monster that will drive up food prices here and abroad. It is not hyperbole to say the rush to ethanol, by taking corn away from the global food market, will lead to starvation and political instability in some countries.

The Wall Street Journal said it right in an editorial headlined “Amber Waves of Ethanol”: “At a time when the world will need more corn and grains, it makes no sense to devote scarce farmland to make a fuel that exists only because of taxpayer subsidies and mandates. If food supplies tighten and prices keep rising, such a policy will soon become immoral.”

Strong words that should encourage an end to this misguided policy.

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