Commentary by Karen Hosler
Is it just me, or was there actually a time when ethanol was the great, green hope?
Didnt Al Gore tell us it would fight global warming through cleaner motor vehicle emissions? Didnt George W. Bush promise this home-grown grain byproduct would reduce U.S. dependence on expensive foreign oil?
And even though they had grave misgivings, didnt 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 Senate has set me straight. In perhaps the single worthwhile step taken recently by what used to be called the worlds most 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. Lets whack off the tariff on imported ethanol while were about it.
At best, ethanol enthusiasm has always been muted in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Theres lots of corn grown here, and corns 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 didnt 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 watersheds 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 theres the punch line: Corn-based ethanol as an environmental benefit was all a hoax from the beginning. It doesnt reduce greenhouse gases,; it raises the price of corn used for food; it cant 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 Gore during the 1992 campaign that he called him Ozone Man.
In fairness, Gore appears to have been right about mans contribution to global warming. Its already upon us. But President 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.
Its the old conservation approach: If we can just learn how to make better use of the energy resources we have, we wont be quite so desperate for magic elixirs.
Karen Hosler, former editorial writer for the Baltimore Sun, is a reporter, commentator and talk show host in Baltimore. Distributed by the Bay Journal News Service.