Paging Obama On Ethanol...

by Dayo Olopade | September 8, 2008

Robert Bryce, writing in the Guardian, is dead on about Barack Obama's wimpy and anti-intellectual track record on corn ethanol:

In 2006, Obama, along with four other farm-state senators, sent a letter to President Bush urging him to ignore calls to reduce the $0.54 per-gallon tariff on imports of Brazilian sugarcane-based ethanol. During his first year in office, Obama twice used corporate jets belonging to the Illinois-based agribusiness giant, Archer Daniels Midland Co, one of America's biggest ethanol producers. In January 2007, Obama along with two other farm-state senators, Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, and Indiana Republican Richard Lugar, introduced a bill called the American Fuels Act of 2007, which was aimed at promoting ethanol consumption. Touting the bill, Obama said: "To become truly energy independent, we need not only to increase domestic production of renewable fuels like ethanol." ...

Taking "change" to Washington—the Obama campaign's mantra—will require fighting agriculture subsidies. But Obama voted for this year's farm bill, a $307bn package stuffed with yet more subsidies. Between 1995 and 2006, federal corn subsidies, which are provided through a myriad of programmes, totalled $56.1bn. That's more than twice the amount given to any other agricultural commodity, including American mainstays like wheat and cotton, and 105 times more than was paid to tobacco farmers.

Talk about being on the wrong side of the law. As I've written many times, Obama is no natural friend of the environment. This well-dated support for ethanol proves it. But as someone who thinks Obama is vastly more likely to get a comprehensive energy platform past the steeplechase of Congress, and is best positioned to marshal public opinion in favor of behavior modification and investment in a clean economy, I think it's sad that the vestiges of being a corn-state senator dim that promise. But here's the real issue:

Indeed, over the past few months, as the reports on corn ethanol's environmental and food price impacts have gone from bad to awful, Obama has been scurrying away from his record as one of the Senate's most reliable corn ethanol boosters.... the Obama campaign has refused to answer questions about Obama's support for the federal ethanol mandates, and the candidate's website has been purged of his old energy platform, which included several lines about his plans to increase ethanol production in the US.

Do we let him "scurry" or not? Depends. I think we're unlikely to hear a genuine acknowledgement that corn-sourced biofuels are a bad gamble. (Paging Barack...) But if the boondoggle gets carefully jettisoned from his otherwise excellent portfolio approach to energy action, I'd say that's a good net outcome. Lest it sound like I'm contorting my opinions to favor a candidate whom I prefer on just about every other issue pertaining to the environment, I'll link to a great New York Times op-classic from John McCain, making a throaty defense of environmentalism and a critique of Republican leadership on energy, circa 1996:

[I]f we are to restore the people's trust and retain the privilege of serving as the majority party, we better start proving it. We need to assure the public that in the 105th Congress the Republican environmental agenda will consist of more than coining new epithets for environmental extremists or offering banal symbolic gestures.

Good stuff. But minds change. The when, why, and in which direction is the stuff of art.

--Dayo Olopade

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/the-vine/paging-obama-ethanol