Vilsack on Corn, Ethanol, and Brazil

I interviewed Tom Vilsack during his 10 minute presidential run last year (I'm Tom Vilsack! Who the Hell Are You?).

The interview touched on ethanol and a few other topics now germane to his presumptive post of Ag Secretary. I think his freemarket stance on Brazilian sugar ethanol is likely to ruffle some feathers.

Another point is that Vilsack was a surrogate for Obama on environmental issues during the campaign. As a sign of how seriously Obama appears to be taking climate change it is telling that he's stocked not only Energy but also Commerce and Agriculture with secretaries who get the big think on the energy and climate transformation the nation desperately needs to undergo.

RS: You're from Iowa and a big ethanol fan. But isn't ethanol just a diversion on the issue of climate change. It may help get us away from foreign oil, but isn't it misleading to talk about ethanol in terms of climate security. All that corn alcohol still gives off CO2 when it burns.

Vilsack: It is a cleaner burning fuel. But this is not just about ethanol and, frankly, corn-based ethanol is not necessarily the wave of the future. Ethanol may be but corn is not. There's not enough corn. There needs to be focus on switch grass, on municipal waste, on timber, on other ways to produce ethanol that is more efficient and burns more efficiently and uses less energy to produce it. Corn was the entryway to this discussion. It's by no means the end all be all.

This country probably also needs to take a different view on the sugar-cane ethanol produced in Brazil. We put a big tariff on it. We should look to ultimately eliminating that so that we get the supply of ethanol that lets Detroit produce flex-fuel cars and develop that industry.

This issue of energy security is clearly about conservation. Substantial conservation. I'm here in Miami talking with the mayor and we discussed his challenge by 2030 having zero carbon emissions coming from new construction in cities across the country. That's a challenge that the national government should accept and meet.

It's also about the expansion of renewables. The state of Iowa happens to be number one in wind production, per capita, and we're third in production capacity. It's a whole new opportunity for the state of Iowa to utilize a resource that's essentially free.

It needs to be a massive national interest led by a president who can show that this is not just pie in the sky this is not just something that's talked about every four years. I'm a candidate who can actually point to progress in my state in this area.

RS: You've seen the Daily Show 'Vilsack!' bit. You strike me as a very serious guy. Are you able to laugh about that?

Vilsack: Listen, PT Barnum once said it doesn't make any difference what they say as long as they keep talking about you. I think it's great. People don't have to remember my name, they only have to remember the first letter which is V. It stands for vision, it stands for victory, it stands for Vilsack.