Farm state senators offer alternative to ending ethanol subsidy

While Coburn's language would completely eliminate the subsidy, the pro-ethanol proposal would cut off the subsidy on July 1, and replace it with a variable subsidy that fluctuates with the price of oil. Proponents of the bill, like Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), said the variable subsidy bill would help guard against attempts by oil producers to lower the price of oil in order to drive the ethanol industry out of business.

"The proposal acts as a safety net to prevent OPEC from manipulating oil prices to kill off their ethanol rival," Lugar said. "When oil prices are high, as they are today, corn-based ethanol would not receive subsidy payments."

Under this proposal, ethanol blenders would get no subsidy at all when oil prices are above $90 a barrel. If oil falls to between $80 and $90 a barrel, they would get a six cents per gallon subsidy. Another six cents would be added for each $10 drop in the price of oil, and a maximum subsidy of 30 cents a gallon could be received when oil falls to $50 a barrel or less (a summary of the bill is here).

That's still less than the current 45 cents a gallon subsidy that ethanol blenders receive currently, regardless of the price of oil.

Proponents of the bill say ending the current system on July 1 and moving to a variable subsidy would save $2.5 billion. In a nod to Coburn and his supporters, the bill would use $1 billion of that for deficit reduction.

The rest would be used for the variable subsidy, but also for the development of ethanol infrastructure and other incentives. For example, the bill would expand tax credits to ethanol blender pumps, and extend through 2014 the small producer ethanol credit.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. John Thune (R-SD), who said Monday that senators should oppose Coburn's attempt to immediately cut off all subsidies to ethanol without warning.

"What the amendment our colleagues are trying to get a vote on tomorrow would do is basically to say to this industry: Yes, we are going to take away this particular tax incentive, and we are going to do it right in the middle of the year," Thune said. "We are going to do it, and we do not like this industry -- which is probably what animates a lot of the opposition to this because if people look at the facts, if they look at the contribution that biofuels have made to our fuel supply in this country, it is significant."

"This bill would transition to a more sustainable model of support for renewable fuel production in America instead of pulling the rug out from under an industry, with 4 days' notice, that employs hundreds of thousands of people in this country, as well as provides an alternative to oil," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), another sponsor.

Other sponsors are Sens. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), John Hoeven (R-ND), Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), Tim Johnson (D-SD), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).