Drive for ethanol is out of control

We are told almost daily that ethanol made now from corn and hopefully one day from switch grass will free us from our dependence on imported oil and usher in an era of renewable energy that will allow us to live well forever.

To hasten that day, the government subsidizes its production, mandates its use and prods everyone in sight to make and use more of the stuff.

The price of this government-driven obsession with ethanol is beginning to dawn on at least a few people who perhaps didn’t realize until recently that every choice we make entails costs as well as benefits.

First, of course, there’s the fact that it takes energy to produce ethanol. Some claim it takes almost as much to make the stuff as it produces. Ethanol’s many promoters claim this simply isn’t true. Maybe they’re right, but when you combine the amount of energy needed to grow the corn, turn it into ethanol, blend it with gasoline and truck it to our local gas stations with the fact that a gallon of ethanol produces less energy than a gallon of gas, one has to wonder.

I have no idea how much the increased cost of driving and living today is directly or indirectly attributable to our ethanol obsession, but consider a few of the costs. It has been reliably estimated that 50 cents of last year’s increase in the per-gallon cost of gasoline at the pump was attributable to the ethanol mandate that went into effect at the same time oil prices were soaring. Exxon and the Arabs got the blame, but a lot of the money we all paid out went to Midwestern farmers and ethanol producers.

A few years ago, ethanol boosters were claiming that diverting corn to energy production would have a negligible impact on the price of corn; one analyst predicted an increase in corn prices by maybe a dime a bushel. In fact, it’s driven up corn prices so much that milk and beef prices have skyrocketed and there have been protests in Mexico at the increases in the cost of corn itself.

These increases amount to a hidden tax that already far exceeds the subsidies being paid directly to ethanol producers. As production increases, this tax will go up even more and will be reflected in the prices we pay not just for gas at the pump, but also for milk, beef and many, many other products at the grocery checkout counter.

All of this makes the nation’s corn growers happy, but makes other farmers and purchasers of corn very unhappy. Corn prices have gone up from just over $2 a bushel to as much as $4, and farmers want to plant the stuff on every square inch of land they can get their hands on. As a result, dairy farmers, cattle and hog producers and even chicken farmers are being forced to pay twice as much as in the past to feed their animals and are finding it more and more difficult to lease land on which to raise them.

And things are going to get worse. There are about 120 ethanol plants in production today, but that number could double within the next couple of years driving corn prices even higher. This will, in turn, convince more and more farmers to abandon less profitable crops to devote more of their land to corn production, which will drive up the prices of those crops to America’s consumers.

As if all this isn’t enough, it is now becoming fairly clear that all this new emphasis on ethanol is going to have a significant impact on our environment. Last week, for example, The Washington Post reported that farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed are expected to plant as much as a million more acres of corn over the next five years. Since corn production creates more pollutants than most other crops, Bay watchers fear the fish and crabs of the Bay may fall victim to our ethanol obsession.

Land based animals and birds as well as the sportsmen who pursue them are also likely to suffer. To achieve the sevenfold increase in ethanol use that President Bush is seeking, farmers are likely to plow up land currently committed to the Conservation Reserve Program or CRP. This is the land today called home by pheasants and just about every other animal one can name.

So, there are going to be winners and losers as we move toward increased ethanol use. It’s just a shame we can’t all become corn growers, because the rest of us are going to pay and pay and pay.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at