There exists a government boondoggle that offends conservatives, liberals, environmentalists, oil refiners, cattle ranchers and taxpayers alike. It’s not easy to get that kind of Kumbaya going, but the corn-based ethanol program has done it.
This has put Joni Ernst, the tea party favorite for Iowa’s open U.S. Senate seat, in an awkward position. The Republican has vowed to both end government subsidies and preserve the freight loads of taxpayer dollars chugging into Iowa’s corn belt in the name of ethanol.
Her footwork goes as follows: She says she’ll end this subsidy when every other subsidy in the American universe also gets the ax. And, she forgot to add, when Martians colonize Neptune.
Thus, Ernst has castrated a bedrock conservative principle as easily as the pigs she claims to have desexed on her family farm.
Two fierce winds have made it especially thorny for conservatives to justify blowing huge sums on energy projects — for oil and gas in Alaska, as well as for ethanol in the Corn Belt.
One is the conservative respect for market forces. A boom in production has actually created an energy glut. The global price for oil recently sank below $90 a barrel.
The other is the successful conservative crusade to curb federal spending. There’s less money sloshing around for dubious programs, as well as the noble ones.
“National support for the ethanol program is collapsing as the reality of corn ethanol has become more and more apparent,” Craig Cox of the Environmental Working Group told me. EWG has been a forceful critic of U.S. farm programs and their impact on the environment.
The ethanol giveaway comes on top of the usual bonanza of farm subsidies. But now, because of the ethanol craze, “farmers trip over themselves planting every square foot they can find with corn,” said Cox, who’s based in Ames, Iowa.
The result has been fouled water supplies. There’s also a soaring world price for food — and for feed, hurting pig farmers and cattle ranchers.
Oil refiners are also taking it on the chin. Today’s big ethanol subsidy comes in the form of a mandate requiring refiners to blend 15 billion gallons of ethanol into motor fuels by 2015.
“There’s only so much ethanol that can be blended into the U.S. gasoline supply,” especially as fuel consumption declines, Cox noted. The blend is typically 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline.
The current flashpoint is a pending Environmental Protection Agency decision to possibly roll back the mandate. The American Petroleum Institute is leading the charge for that.
By the way, the one compelling rationale for ethanol was that it would reduce carbon emissions. And the blending mandate theoretically rests on ethanol’s cutting those greenhouse gases by 20 percent.
Recent science shows that on the contrary, ethanol increases them. But no matter.
“The funny little secret,” Cox said, “is the fine print in the 2007 energy law, which exempts all existing ethanol plants or plants that commenced construction from that requirement.” In other words, all 15 billion gallons stay.
Before we go, let’s make of a point of not pinning a medal on Ernst’s Democratic foe, Bruce Braley. He’s all for the ethanol scam. Liberals who support government programs should feel a special duty to weed out the dodgy ones.
Am I being unfair and unrealistic? After all, this is politics, and the corn folks make up a good hunk of Iowa’s voters.
Well, here’s the deal for Republicans: If you want to transfer huge sums of other taxpayers’ money into local scams, go ahead and try. Just expect to be mocked every time you call yourself a conservative. OK?