Can conservatives support ethanol? We think so, despite what George Will thinks

(George Will opines) Life poses difficult choices, but not about ethanol. Government subsidizes ethanol production, imposes tariffs to protect manufacturers of it and mandates the use of it — and it injures the nation’s and the world’s economic, environmental, and social (it raises food prices) well-being.

In May, in corn-growing Iowa, Romney said, “I support” — present tense — “the subsidy of ethanol.” And: “I believe ethanol is an important part of our energy solution for this country.” But in October he told Iowans he is “a business guy,” so as president he would review this bipartisan — the last Republican president was an ethanol enthusiast — folly. Romney said that he once favored (past tense) subsidies to get the ethanol industry “on its feet.” (In the 19th century, Republican “business guys” justified high tariffs for protecting “infant industries”). But Romney added, “I’ve indicated I didn’t think the subsidy had to go on forever.” Ethanol subsidies expire in December, but “I might have looked at more of a decline over time” because of “the importance of ethanol as a domestic fuel.” Besides, “ethanol is part of national security.” However, “I don’t want to say” I will propose new subsidies. Still, ethanol has “become an important source of amplifying our energy capacity.” Anyway, ethanol should “continue to have prospects of growing its share of” transportation fuels. Got it?

Our Take:
George Will is right that ethanol is a bipartisan issue. Wrong to call it a folly.

Will’s certitude on the ethanol issue is in inverse relation to the amount of information (that would be nil) he offers the reader in support of his views. At least when he writes about baseball, he gives us the stats we need to judge for ourselves. Since we think conservatives and liberals appreciate energy facts, here are a few.

The nation’s and the world’s economic well being? Will would trade $6 billion in federal support to ethanol and instead he would send $45 billion dollars out of the country to pay for more foreign oil? How much more quickly will that allow Iran to expand its nuclear weapons program? It’s a near certainty that the ethanol industry will be made to give up this subsidy anyway. Shouldn’t a real conservative be wondering about the tax subsidies for oil producers, many times larger than for the ethanol industry?

We think it’s helpful that Will points out Romney’s inconsistency on ethanol. Pres. George W. Bush favored ethanol support. John McCain opposed ethanol support. Romney seems to be attempting an impossible balancing act between these two viewpoints in his campaign. We think a real leader can explain the need to build our country’s domestic energy production capacity, so our ability to power our lives and our businesses does not make us bend a knee to any foreign power. Just as we build roads to assure the flow of commerce, the growth of domestically-produced renewable energy should be part of the picture that will allow American business to pursue a confident growth strategy.

The ethanol industry supports hundreds of thousands of American jobs that will not be exported. The hundred-billion dollars plus we spend to import two thirds of the oil we need is the single largest “tax” that is putting the brakes on the American economy.

And speaking of taxes, where is Will on the huge expenditure on tax credits that support the construction of factories overseas by American companies? If a conservative can support these write-offs in the name of American business competitiveness, why not support a tax credit that actually creates jobs here instead of shipping them overseas?

Will calls Pres. Obama a naïf, but he appears to project his own unworldliness if he pretends that government support of industry is automatically foolhardy.

And the environment?

If we went with Will’s view, instead of supporting Midwest farmers and biofuels producers, we could pay the Canadians to tear down more forest in Alberta and strip mine hundreds of square miles more land to get at tar sand oil. As most people know, tar sands processing also requires pristine groundwater heated into steam to separate the petroleum from its medium of sand and shale—to date this has produced tailing ponds which make the Deep Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico look like drinking water.

We urge Will and his readers to consider the excellent article on Canadian Tar sands done by National Geographic published in its March 2009 edition.

The question of food costs? While the rising cost of corn impacts livestock producers, the rising cost of fossil fuel impacts every stage of food production—every study that’s been done shows that recent food price rises reflect the higher cost of fossil energy (prices raised at will by OPEC) and the increasing cost of labor—Americans continue to increase processed food as a proportion of their diets. More processing means more people hours and higher costs. Together labor and energy costs are more than half of the increased retail price of food. The cost of higher grain prices represents about ten percent of the food cost increases we have seen. A large reason for biofuel being such a small slice of retail food prices is that ethanol companies make high quality animal feed as well as energy. Distillers grains replaces millions of acres of corn and soybeans—a huge fraction of the amount used in the biofuels process.


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