Ethanol production is key to renewable fuels standard

Record-high oil prices. The war in Iraq. Global warming. These are the issues that dominate the headlines today, and trouble American families. Not coincidentally, they all share the same underlying cause: the addiction of the United States to foreign oil.

Weaning ourselves off fossil fuels won’t be easy. There is no silver bullet. We need to conserve energy, increase fuel economy standards, invest in renewable power. These are steps that must be taken by this Congress, or we will have failed the American people.

But the single biggest contributing factor to our dependence on foreign oil is America’s insatiable demand for transportation fuel. As Congress makes final decisions on the energy bill, one of the most important decisions to be made is whether or not to implement a more aggressive national renewable fuels standard (RFS). This is a no-brainer. A responsible energy bill must contain an RFS.

Opponents of the RFS — and we all know who they are — have decided that the best way to avoid one is to smear corn ethanol. The formula is simple. We cannot hit the proposed renewable fuel targets without corn ethanol, so any hesitancy about corn erodes support for the policy. Meanwhile, oil companies continue to hold us over a $95 barrel of oil.

This clever campaign is loaded with half-truths and red herrings. Along with misleading claims that ethanol contributes to global warming, or relies too heavily on public subsidies — subsidies which are a rounding error compared to government subsidization of the oil industry — it is often said that ethanol is not produced in a renewable manner or that it increases food prices.

These claims are misleading at best. The feedstock for today’s ethanol (corn) is renewable, and tomorrow’s ethanol feedstock (cellulose) will be even better. The fact that fossil fuels are required to produce ethanol from these renewable feedstocks is a given, because the production of any source of energy requires energy, and the U.S. energy sector is fossil-fuel based. But ethanol producers are increasingly efficient, and some are beginning to co-fire their plants with biomass.

Most importantly to me, the feedstocks for biofuels are domestic. No U.S. soldier will ever die defending a cornfield. High prices for corn have been a boon to American farmers, without significantly affecting the cost of food. Only 12 percent of American corn actually ends up in the food supply, and the price of oil has a far greater impact on how much we pay for food than the price of grain. Government support for corn ethanol is miniscule compared to the $3 billion U.S. taxpayers spend each week fighting wars in the Middle East — wars that former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan recently conceded are about oil.

Make no mistake about it. Corn ethanol can take us only so far. I look forward to the day when the next generation of biofuels — cellulosic ethanol and renewable diesel — are commercialized and widely available. I watch with great interest as today’s biofuel producers invest in tomorrow’s biofuel companies.

But to get to tomorrow we need to make pragmatic choices today. That means a strong renewable fuel standard in this year’s energy bill to ensure that the next generation of biofuels becomes a reality.