Pork Politics at its Worst

Orange County Register
August 29, 2003

By J. Bishop Grewell

"Whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before," wrote Jonathan Swift in "Gulliver's Travels," "would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together."

With the ethanol provisions in current federal energy legislation and calls for even greater ethanol support by Senate leaders Bill Frist and Tom Daschle, today's race of politicians hopes to outwit Mr. Swift by growing millions of ears of corn where none should. After the MTBE debacle, California knows all too well the hazards of mandated gasoline additives.

But bipartisan support is strong for an additive with dubious effects on human health and the environment as the road to the presidency and control of the Senate pass through corn country in 2004.

Sen. Chris Bond, R-Mo., told AP after supporting a change an earlier bill that would have doubled ethanol production, "There are tremendous economic benefits."

He is right. Economic benefits abound for senators and one company in particular. Moving from "Supermarket to the World" to "Corner Gas Station to the World," Archer Daniels Midland has championed ethanol with campaign dollars. Producing over half of the country's ethanol throughout the last decade, ADM receives a lion's share of ethanol subsidies. Over $400 million left the federal treasury for ADM coffers annually during the 1990s.

In return, the company funds Democrats and Republicans alike. Common Cause, a watchdog group, identified $4.5 million worth of political contributions from ADM between 1987 and 1997 - a small investment for hundred-fold returns.

While ethanol enriches congressional war chests, it does not provide economic benefits to the rest of us. Ethanol consumers pay an extra 4 to 8 cents at the pump. Millions of tax dollars support the fuel additive. Along the way, fuel manufacturers are kept from making cheaper, cleaner-burning fuels without ethanol. Why?

Ethanol senators claim the additive reduces smog in metropolitan areas, but government studies do not agree. In 1997, the General Accounting Office (GAO) concluded that axing ethanol would result in "little change in air quality or global environmental quality." The GAO's study determined that a reduction in ethanol usage would "slightly increase carbon monoxide emissions ... but slightly reduce emissions of ozone precursors." The California Air Resources Board agreed, finding that higher evaporation rates in ethanol-mixed gasoline led to declining air quality.

Similar results were found by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2001. Fourteen of the EPA's 18 most realistic air pollution models determined ethanol augments smog. A 1996 EPA review of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards had already concluded that smog and its components pose a greater threat to humans than the one thing ethanol does reduce: carbon monoxide.

Ethanol senators claim the additive will reduce our dependence on foreign energy. Similarly wise investment opportunities have arrived in my e-mail inbox from a host of former African dictators.

And besides supplying a meaningless fraction of fuel for the country, ethanol requires significant fuel and resources to produce. The corn grown for ethanol requires gasoline-powered tractors, harvesters and supply trucks to get to market. In fact, Cornell's David Pimentel argues that ethanol takes 29 percent more energy to produce than it creates.

But it matters not if ethanol yields energy losses. It matters not if ethanol reduces air quality. And it matters not if ethanol will cost consumers money at the pump. What matters is political pork grows fat on corn. Jonathan Swift might be amazed at all the politicians eager to service their country, but I doubt it.

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J. Bishop Grewell, is a former  research associate for PERC. He is a graduate of Stanford University, the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and Northwestern Law School. He is currently practicing law in Chicago.
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