Is it just me, or was there actually a time when ethanol was the great, green hope?
Didn't Al Gore tell us it would fight global warming through cleaner motor vehicle emissions? Didn't George W. Bush promise this homegrown grain byproduct would reduce U.S. dependence on expensive foreign oil?
And even though they had grave misgivings, didn't the folks at the tri-state Chesapeake Bay Commission conclude they had to embrace this political reality and make the best of it?
I may have been the only dope who fell for any of this, but the U.S. Senate has set me straight. In perhaps the single worthwhile step taken recently by what used to be called the world's greatest deliberative body, a 72 to 27 majority of senators signaled last month that they are ready to end $6 billion in annual subsidies to the ethanol blenders and refiners.
When senators return to Washington in September — tanned, rested and ready — voters should demand they follow through with a stake to the heart of this scam. Let's nix the tariff on imported ethanol while we're about it.
At best, ethanol enthusiasm has always been muted in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. There's lots of corn grown here, and corn's been the main stock for making ethanol. But the farms are small, not suited to the factory-style production of the Midwest. Plus, the Delmarva poultry industry provides a strong market for local corn.
As further evidence that corn-based ethanol is a bad local investment, the bay commission noted in a 2007 report that the bay watershed is the only major corn-producing region in the country without an ethanol plant. The two plants that opened since then in central Pennsylvania and Hopewell, Va., have now gone belly up. Federal subsidies didn't save them.
Forget the lack of benefits, though. Encouraging more local acreage to be planted in corn presents very real dangers to the Chesapeake Bay.
Worst among them would be the loss of forests that now cover nearly 60 percent of the bay watershed's 64,000 square miles and contribute far fewer pollutants than any other land use, and the loss of buffer zones near streams.
Encouraging more corn production — a shift from soybeans and haylands — is also a threat to the bay. Corn requires more fertilizer and thus sends more polluting nitrogen into the waterways. Diligent use of practices to reduce the runoff can help a lot. But those measures take time and money, and even today, 80 percent of the cropland in the Chesapeake watershed is not getting the careful treatment it needs, according to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture study. And the budget calamity in Washington, D.C. suggests that there are likely lean days ahead for help from federal grants — even if ethanol subsidies get the heave-ho.
And then there's the punch line: Corn-based ethanol as an environmental benefit was all a hoax from the beginning. It doesn't reduce greenhouse gases; it raises the price of corn used for food; it can't survive without subsidies; and it never represented a long-term source of transportation fuel.
Mr. Global Warming, Al Gore, admitted as much at a conference in Athens last year when he called his support for corn-based ethanol a "mistake." He said he was driven by his desire to curry support with the farm lobby in the early Midwest primary states when he was preparing a presidential run.
George H.W. Bush got so frustrated with Mr. Gore during the 1992 campaign that he called him "Ozone Man."
In fairness, Mr. Gore appears to have been right about humanity's contribution to global warming. It's already upon us. But President Barack Obama has come up with a much better approach than ethanol for dealing with greenhouses gases: He wants tougher fuel-efficiency standards for buses and light trucks.
It's the old conservation approach: If we can just learn how to make better use of the energy resources we have, we won't be quite so desperate for magic elixirs.
Karen Hosler, a former editorial writer for the Baltimore Sun, is a reporter, commentator and talk show host in Baltimore. This article is distributed by the Bay Journal News Service.