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Corn, Imported Oil, Nukes, and Global Warming
by Chuck DeVore [legislator, novelist] 6/10/08

Having a healthy suspicion of politicians’ motives and public statements is a good thing in a representative democracy.  There is no better example of this than in America’s perennially messed up energy policy, which favors federal subsidies over actual energy generation, and in the process, makes us hostage to foreign oil while hurting the environment at the same time.  Case in point: America’s ongoing infatuation with turning corn into fuel while ignoring proven ways of bringing energy to market, such as building nuclear power plants or drilling for more oil and gas.  
Congress passed H.R. 6 in July 2005.  The Energy Bill was dubbed, “A bill to ensure jobs for our future with secure, affordable, and reliable energy.”  The final vote in the U.S. Senate on this lard-loaded bill was 74-26, with Presidential contender Sen. John McCain and both California Senators Boxer and Feinstein voting “nay” while corn-state Senator Barack Obama voted “yea.”  What were they voting for?  Huge subsidies to U.S. farmers to grow corn and turn it into fuel.  Preventing oil and gas drilling both off shore and in Alaska.  And, loan guarantees to help revive the nuclear power industry. 

Chuck DeVore

Chuck DeVore represents 450,000 people in the California State Assembly in coastal Orange County.  He retired from the Army National Guard as a lieutenant colonel.  From 1986 to 1988 he was a Reagan White House appointee in the Pentagon.  DeVore co-authored China Attacks with Steven Mosher.  The book was translated into Chinese for sale in Taiwan. See: www.ChuckDeVore.com. [Devore index]

During debate on the bill in June, Senators Feinstein, Boxer and Obama voted to send the bill back to the House.  Sen. McCain, as McCain is ought to do, stubbornly voted “nay,’ hewing to his principled opposition to pork barrel politics.  During the debate, Sen. Boxer summarized the environmental left’s concerns with the bill as it was taking shape, opposing any effort to drill for America’s oil and gas resources offshore, opposing the ability to import liquefied natural gas, and opposing nuclear power.  To Boxer’s credit, she expressed skepticism over ethanol’s environmental impact.   McCain’s opposition was mainly rooted in corn ethanol’s huge federal subsidies, already totaling well over $40 billion in the 10 years before the 2005 vote in the Senate.  
California legislators have gotten into the act as well, introducing multiple bills to increase the use of ethanol, cut greenhouse gas emissions by mandate, and reduce oil production – all in the name of the environment.  That many of the bills operate at cross purposes to each other or to federal law is no matter; the appearance of action is more important than outcome in the Alice in Wonderland world of politics.  
The benefit of experience has now shown us what uncritical listening to political pressure groups can give us.  Corn ethanol has been touted by a phalanx of groups from the right and left, including environmental organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, national security conservatives, and, of course, the farm industry.  Corn ethanol’s central promise was that it would enhance “energy security” by reducing oil imports while reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.  
The facts of corn ethanol are otherwise.  In exchange for what amounts to a whopping $0.51 per gallon subsidy for ethanol blenders (reduced to $0.45 per gallon in the recent Farm Bill), American farmers have produced record amounts of corn.  This has resulted in making a fuel that takes more energy to produce than we get out of it, increased food prices around the world, increased use of fossil fuel-based fertilizers and pesticides, and increased greenhouse gas emissions.  
How did this happen?  To grow more corn, farmers reduced soy bean production, much of which shifted to Brazil.  To grow more soy beans, Brazilians cut down rain forest – this, of course, has ruinous implications for greenhouse gas emissions, one of the supposed benefits of turning corn into vehicle fuel.  
In addition to being bad environmental policy, corn ethanol subsidies have added misery to the world’s poor.  According to U.S. Department of Agriculture, about one-fifth of the big run-up in world food prices has been caused by U.S. corn-ethanol subsidies.  International organizations peg food price increases due to corn ethanol much higher, at 40 percent.  With food riots in Mexico, Pakistan, Egypt, Indonesia, and Haiti, our corn ethanol subsidies are dangerously immoral as well as foolish.  
Less than a month ago, I had the chance to summarize my opposition to corn ethanol subsidies at an educational symposium.  "Energy Alternatives: America's Challenge in the Global Economy" was sponsored by the University of California, Irvine, the Milken Institute, and the New Majority California Energy Task Force on May 13.  Speaking on a panel immediately after former governor, and current California State Attorney General Jerry Brown spoke – surprisingly, Brown had favorable words for nuclear power – I boosted modern nuclear power as a way to reduce greenhouse gases and reduce our reliance on imported fossil fuels.
During my talk I warned that not every renewable energy source is helpful in the effort to address global warming, specifically singling out corn ethanol because it is, "…destroying Brazilian rainforest as soybean production has shifted from the U.S., it is also starving people in the third world and causing unrest."
My remarks caused a bit of a stir, causing another panelist, Anne Korin, an energy policy analyst and co-chair of the Set America Free coalition and a director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS), to strongly defend corn ethanol at the conclusion of the conference.  Ms. Korin passionately stated that corn ethanol is not causing a rise in world food prices since American farmers are exporting more grain than ever.  She also emphatically disputed the notion that corn ethanol was causing any destruction of the Amazonian rainforest, pointing out that sugar cane is grown outside of the rainforest region in Brazil.

As I previously cited, Anne Korin's first statement regarding food prices is flat wrong according to government officials who track such things.  Further, to someone in the third world spending 80 percent of their income on food, any increase in the cost of food is devastating and can push their family into starvation.  That U.S. farm and energy policy is abetting this artificial famine is unconscionable.  

Ms. Korin's second assertion completely misses the mark.  I never linked the destruction of the rainforest in Brazil to sugar cane; rather, I linked it to the U.S. appetite for corn ethanol which has displaced domestic soybean production to nations such as Brazil where they have cut down rainforest to put more land into production.  According to a study by the University of Minnesota and the Nature Conservancy published in Science in February, 2008, increased demand for corn ethanol is contributing to the conversion of the Brazilian Amazon into farmland as Brazilian farmers grow the soybeans U.S. farmers used to grow.

If we want more affordable ethanol, the best U.S. policy would be to drop our $0.54 per gallon tariff on ethanol imported from nations such as Brazil where they make ethanol from sugar cane.  Sugar cane, by the way, is eight times more efficient at making fuel than corn and it is grown in the southern U.S.

Better yet, we can open up Alaska and our offshore territories to oil and gas drilling.  Rather than begging the Saudis to pump more oil we should pump more of our own – sadly, that would require our living in the real world where hard choices have to be made.  

Further, we should produce far more clean and affordable electricity, using nuclear power, rather than coal and natural gas.  If global warming is the problem many say it is, then nuclear power has to play a major role in its solution since nuclear power makes the most amount of energy for the least amount of greenhouse gas emissions of any source of energy.  Fortunately, after some 30 years of effort, the Department of Energy a few days ago finally applied for a license to operate Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a repository for spent nuclear fuel.  Too bad we are not yet doing what the French do: recycle nuclear fuel, reducing waste by about 96 percent. 

The bottom line is this: we need to base our energy and global greenhouse gas reduction policies on sound science and economics, not simply on what may be good for a few well-placed interest groups.  CRO
Chuck DeVore represents 450,000 people in the California State Assembly in coastal Orange County.  He retired from the Army National Guard as a lieutenant colonel.  From 1986 to 1988 he was a Reagan White House appointee in the Pentagon.  DeVore co-authored China Attacks with Steven Mosher.  The book was translated into Chinese for sale in Taiwan. See: www.ChuckDeVore.com.

copyright 2008 Chuck DeVore




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