The great danger of confronting peak oil and global warming isn't that we will sit on our collective asses and do nothing while civilization collapses, but that we will plunge after "solutions" that will make our problems even worse. Like believing we can replace gasoline with ethanol, the much-hyped biofuel that we make from corn.
Ethanol, of course, is nothing new. American refiners will produce nearly 6 billion gallons of corn ethanol this year, mostly for use as a gasoline additive to make engines burn cleaner. But in June, the Senate all but announced that America's future is going to be powered by biofuels, mandating the production of 36 billion gallons of ethanol by 2022. According to ethanol boosters, this is the beginning of a much larger revolution that could entirely replace our 21-million-barrel-a-day oil addiction. Midwest farmers will get rich, the air will be cleaner, the planet will be cooler, and, best of all, we can tell those greedy sheiks to fuck off. As the king of ethanol hype, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, put it recently, "Everything about ethanol is good, good, good."
This is not just hype — it's dangerous, delusional bullshit. Ethanol doesn't burn cleaner than gasoline, nor is it cheaper. Our current ethanol production represents only 3.5 percent of our gasoline consumption — yet it consumes twenty percent of the entire U.S. corn crop, causing the price of corn to double in the last two years and raising the threat of hunger in the Third World. And the increasing acreage devoted to corn for ethanol means less land for other staple crops, giving farmers in South America an incentive to carve fields out of tropical forests that help to cool the planet and stave off global warming.
So why bother? Because the whole point of corn ethanol is not to solve America's energy crisis, but to generate one of the great political boondoggles of our time. Corn is already the most subsidized crop in America, raking in a total of $51 billion in federal handouts between 1995 and 2005 — twice as much as wheat subsidies and four times as much as soybeans. Ethanol itself is propped up by hefty subsidies, including a fifty-one-cent-per-gallon tax allowance for refiners. And a study by the International Institute for Sustainable Development found that ethanol subsidies amount to as much as $1.38 per gallon — about half of ethanol's wholesale market price.
Three factors are driving the ethanol hype. The first is panic: Many energy experts believe that the world's oil supplies have already peaked or will peak within the next decade. The second is election-year politics. With the first vote to be held in Iowa, the largest corn-producing state in the nation, former skeptics like Sens. Hillary Clinton and John McCain now pay tribute to the wonders of ethanol. Earlier this year, Sen. Barack Obama pleased his agricultural backers in Illinois by co-authoring legislation to raise production of biofuels to 60 billion gallons by 2030. A few weeks later, rival Democrat John Edwards, who is staking his campaign on a victory in the Iowa caucus, upped the ante to 65 billion gallons by 2025.
The third factor stoking the ethanol frenzy is the war in Iraq, which has made energy independence a universal political slogan. Unlike coal, another heavily subsidized energy source, ethanol has the added political benefit of elevating the American farmer to national hero. As former CIA director James Woolsey, an outspoken ethanol evangelist, puts it, "American farmers, by making the commitment to grow more corn for ethanol, are at the top of the spear on the war against terrorism." If you love America, how can you not love ethanol?
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