Political Payoff for Corn Farmers

December 22, 1993

Let's admit that using cleaner-burning motor fuel is worth a few cents a gallon if it curbs smog. But using environmental policy to promote political subsidies undermines the public will and trust for anti-pollution programs.

With its new plan to require the use of corn-based ethanol in new fuels by 1995, the Clinton administration appears to favor already-subsidized corn farmers at the expense of the motoring public.

Instead of just setting pollution limits for automotive fuels, and letting the fuel and auto industry achieve them the best and cheapest way, the Environmental Protection Agency proposes that 30 percent of the cleaner burning fuel required by 1995 use ethanol. No substitutes allowed.

That would help the nation's corn farmers increase their sales by 250 million bushels a year, an election-year payoff scheme floated by George Bush but never implemented. And it boosts the idea of using renewable resources for fuel. But cheaper, probably more effective smog-cutting blends could be made from methanol, a synthetic alcohol derived from wood (also a renewable resource) and natural gas.

Marylanders and other urban areas with harmful ozone-smog levels already pay an extra 3 cents a gallon in wintertime for higher-oxygen blended motor fuels to reduce pollution. They'll pay even more in winter and an extra 5 cents a gallon in the warmer months as well, beginning in 1995, under the EPA proposal.

That may be preferable to imposing Draconian commuter-control plans on urban employers that could wreak economic havoc in the region. Smog and toxic emissions would be cut by 15 percent or more in the Northeast, Southern California and other major pollution centers by requiring this reformulated, cleaner-burning motor fuel.

There's no reason to make that fuel even costlier by imposing an ethanol quota. Ethanol evaporates more readily than gasoline in hot weather, generating more pollution; a more expensive ethanol-derivative must be used in those months.

If ethanol were cost-effective, it would need no quotas. The corn industry lobbied hard for this uneconomical rule. The large political donations of a major ethanol producer, Archer-Daniels-Midland, are cause for skepticism of the administration's motives. Eliminating the ethanol quota, which is already under legal attack, would help clear the air of political suspicions and promote broader public acceptance of the need for cleaner fuels.

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