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The Ethanol Revolt

The Wall Street Journal reports that various members of Congress are starting to sour on corn ethanol as an energy source--and, in some cases, becoming actively hostile:

Corn ethanol seemed unstoppable, but a remarkable thing happened on the road from Des Moines. Just as the smart people warned, the government's decision to play energy market God and forcibly divert huge amounts of corn stocks into ethanol has played havoc with key sectors of the economy. Corn prices have nearly doubled, which means livestock owners can't afford to feed their animals, and food and drink manufacturers are struggling to buy corn and corn syrup. Environmentalists are sour over new stresses on farmland; international aid groups are moaning that the U.S. is cutting back its charitable food giving, and many of these folks are taking out their anger on Congress.

Call it a case study in how a powerful lobby can overplay its hand. While many members are still publicly touting corn ethanol, privately they are quietly backing away from another round of corn-mania. The most extraordinary sign was the Senate Energy Committee's recent ethanol bill, hailed by Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Pete Domenici as "bipartisan" legislation for more "homegrown fuels." What the committee didn't mention in its press release was that it had built the legislation around Mr. Chambliss's cap on corn ethanol (at 15 billion gallons), and that the rest of the 32 billion-gallon-a-year mandate would have to come from other (still imaginary) sources, say switchgrass.

Kevin Drum posted a graph the other day that made the basic point well: Depending on how it's made, using corn ethanol instead of gasoline may provide meager benefits in terms of CO2 reduction (especially if it's produced using coal), and in some cases, may even lead to greater air pollution. Not to mention the staggering amounts of arable land and water involved.

On the other hand, it's hard to see presidential candidates shying away from corn ethanol anytime soon. In addition to Iowa, the top ten ethanol-producing states include Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Ohio. Major swing states. Most of the grumbling about ethanol, meanwhile, is coming from farmers and ranchers in the uncompetitive Plains States. So while Bill Richardson managed to give an energy speech recently without even mentioning corn ethanol, the other frontrunners all worship the stuff.

--Bradford Plumer