Summer Sale Extended! Get unlimited digital access for 13 weeks for $13.
Op-Eds
News Opinion Op-Eds

End the ethanol charade

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.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • Climate change and national security

    Climate change and national security

    Your editorial "The danger of climate denial" (May 22) offered a dismal forecast, yet some people continue to deny that climate change is real or that it is caused at least in part by human activity.

  • Obama's words and actions at odds

    Obama's words and actions at odds

    Your editorial on President Barack Obama's speech at the Coast Guard Academy graduation ceremony rightly commended him for his straightforward discussion of climate change ("The danger of climate denial," May 22).

  • GDP must consider environmental costs

    GDP must consider environmental costs

    The Sun's recent editorial about the GOP's intention to gut the EPA's authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions touches on an important economic issue ("Holding one's breath, GOP-style," Dec. 9).

  • Is Obama overly ambitious on ozone regulations?

    Is Obama overly ambitious on ozone regulations?

    President Barack Obama has a narrowing window to secure a legacy in which he can take pride and which historians will applaud and note with favor. Freed from having to run for office ever again, President Obama can focus on his legacy, work to ensure that a Democrat succeeds him in the White House...

  • Smog limits are badly needed

    Smog limits are badly needed

    Maryland has the worst air on the East Coast and highest premature death rate in the nation. National Academy of Sciences data suggest that health impacts resulting from fossil fuels cost $73 per household per month in Maryland and are a drag on the economy. Yet conservative deniers and their self-serving,...

  • A healthier way to fly

    A healthier way to fly

    Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took the first step toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions from airplanes. The rule-making process will take months if not years, but the lingering question is, how will the proposed regulations fit with what other countries are doing about...

  • City smog threatens our health and the economy

    City smog threatens our health and the economy

    The EPA's recent decision to tighten limits on smog pollution is commendable and necessary ("Holding one's breath, GOP style," Dec. 8).

  • Forget hurricanes, the real threat to Md. is the rising sea level

    Forget hurricanes, the real threat to Md. is the rising sea level

    Your editorial "Don't take hurricanes lightly" (June 7) noted the threat hurricanes pose to Maryland, but the oceans hold much deadlier and persistent danger: Sea level rise.

Comments
Loading
71°