The tirade that House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson of Minnesota recently delivered accusing the Environmental Protection Agency of sinking the corn-ethanol industry has many of us in the environmental community scratching our heads. Peterson accused federal officials of being "in bed with the oil companies" because their science-based analysis found that corn ethanol doesn't reduce greenhouse-gas emissions as much as the industry claims. On Friday, Peterson's anger turned to threats in comments to Agriculture.com that included: "... If they don't fix this, I'm going to bring this climate bill down," a reference to legislation he introduced the day before to strip the science-based analysis of biofuels from the Renewable Fuel Standard. Apparently, the chairman intends to hold critical climate-change legislation hostage unless corn ethanol receives yet another free pass. What has Peterson and the corn-ethanol lobby so upset is that the EPA took into consideration "indirect land use change" -- technical jargon for factoring in the climate-damaging gases that will be released when forests or grasslands are plowed under and planted with crops to make up for the corn used to make ethanol. When EPA scientists factor in indirect land use change, as they are required to do by law, it turns out corn ethanol likely increases rather than decreases greenhouse-gas emissions.
Peterson has failed to mention, however, that Congress already made sure corn ethanol was protected from any scientific assessment of its impact on the environment when it passed the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act. Buried in the law are provisions that exempt every gallon of corn ethanol from the requirement to reduce greenhouse gases that all other biofuels have to meet to qualify as a "renewable fuel." The EPA estimates that these provisions grandfather in 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol, 6 billion gallons more than was produced in 2008, whether putting that fuel in our gas tanks helps protect our climate or not. The upshot is that not a single U.S. corn-ethanol producer has to worry about what EPA is proposing to do after months of work and consulting with dozens of scientists.
Why the hysteria around indirect land use change or any other scientific issues when they've already snuck in under the bar? The corn lobby and its patrons in Washington are desperate to distract attention from just how well they are being treated in the EPA proposal. The real problem for U.S. corn-ethanol producers is that there is no market for those 15 billion gallons of grandfathered corn ethanol. Hence the push by the industry for yet another favor: getting EPA to allow blending gasoline with 15 percent ethanol, and demanding that the agency skip the testing it is required to do under the Clean Air Act to make sure higher blends of ethanol don't pollute the air. Ethanol interests likewise want to ignore the protests of automakers and producers and owners of small engines -- from boats to snowmobiles to lawnmowers. Who will have to pay when billions of dollars of equipment is damaged by the enriched ethanol Washington may force consumers to buy?
One wonders what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi must be thinking of Peterson's reckless proposal to hold one of her and the president's most important priorities -- climate-change legislation -- hostage to the already well-served interests of the corn-ethanol industry. Particularly given the fact that Department of Energy data reveal that ethanol already pockets two-thirds of all federal support for renewable energy. As ever, the industry wants even more. The threat of climate change is real, and farmers are particularly vulnerable to the droughts, severe storms and other damaging effects of a warming climate. Climate change is threatening the soil and water resources on which agriculture and our environment depend. Congress must ignore the special pleadings of the corn-ethanol industry and its champions on the Agriculture Committee and quickly pass a strong climate-change bill. A recent plea from the National Farmer's Union for Peterson to reconsider his opposition to climate legislation underscores the fact that at least some members of the agriculture community can see both the potential financial opportunity in cap-and-trade policy and the damage global warming will do. It also highlights the danger of tunnel vision incurred by a single-minded catering to a corn-ethanol industry that seems incapable of making a profit despite lavish government subsidies and top-down mandates from inside the Beltway.