Corn ethanol bubble stretched thin
Expect the venture capitalists who started this pyramid scheme to quietly jump ship, leaving those who came in last holding the steaming bag. This article is behind the Wall Street Journal subscription wall and I can’t post the whole article, though I would certainly like to. Several excerpts follow:
Earlier this year, Mr. Chambliss introduced a bill calling for even greater ethanol use, though with one striking difference: The bill caps the amount of that fuel that can come from corn. Turns out Georgia’s chicken farmers hate corn-based ethanol; Georgia’s pork producers hate corn-based ethanol; Georgia’s dairy industry hates corn-based ethanol; Georgia’s food producers hate corn-based ethanol; Georgia’s hunters hate corn-based ethanol. And all that means Mr. Chambliss has had to find a new biofuels religion.
(Thanks again, KO!)
The shine is off corn ethanol, and oh, what a comedown it has been. It was only in January that President Bush was calling for a yet a bijillion more gallons of the wonder-stuff in his State of the Union address, and Iowa’s Chuck Grassley was practically doing the Macarena in his seat. And why shouldn’t Mr. Grassley and fellow ethanol handmaidens have boogied? They’d forced their first mandate through Congress, corn farmers were rolling in dough, billions in taxpayer dollars were spurring dozens of new ethanol plants — and here was the commander-in-chief calling for yet more yellow dollars. All in the name of national security, too!
Just as the smart people warned, the government’s decision to play energy market God and forcibly divert huge amounts of corn stocks into ethanol has played havoc with key sectors of the economy. Corn prices have nearly doubled …
It’s taken politicians a while to catch on to these anti-ethanol vibes, but they’ve now got the picture. At an agriculture conference in Indianapolis last fall, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns and EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson spoke, delivering their usual fare about how ethanol was the greatest thing since sliced corn bread. They expected warm applause; in the past the entire ag community united around helping their brother corn farmers make a buck. But now that ethanol is literally taking food from their beasts’ mouths, much of that community has grown less friendly. According to one attendee, Messrs. Daniels, Johanns and Johnson were later slammed with snippy ethanol questions from angry livestock owners, much to their dazed surprise. Word is that even the presidential candidates — who usually can say no wrong about ethanol while touring the Midwest — are having to be more selective about where they make their remarks.
Call it a case study in how a powerful lobby can overplay its hand. While many members are still publicly touting corn ethanol, privately they are quietly backing away from another round of corn-mania. The most extraordinary sign was the Senate Energy Committee’s recent ethanol bill, hailed by Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Pete Domenici as “bipartisan” legislation for more “homegrown fuels.” What the committee didn’t mention in its press release was that it had built the legislation around Mr. Chambliss’s cap on corn ethanol (at 15 billion gallons), and that the rest of the 32 billion-gallon-a-year mandate would have to come from other (still imaginary) sources, say switchgrass. The bill passed 20-3.
Things are even hotter in Washington, where lobbying groups are firming up their positions against corn ethanol. The hugely influential National Cattlemen’s Beef Association has gone so far as to outline a series of public demands, including an end to any government tax credits (subsidies) for ethanol and an axe to the import tariff on foreign ethanol. Put another way, the cattlemen are so angry that they are demanding free markets and free trade — a first. Maybe ethanol really is a miracle fuel. In any event, expect the ethanol call to get harder for Plains state senators.
From the other side, green groups are grousing about the environmental consequences of intensive corn farming. International aid organizations are complaining that ethanol is raising the overall cost of food and diverting grain from poor countries. Ducks Unlimited, part of Washington’s “hooks and bullets” conservation lobby, sported a recent article in its magazine complaining that farmers are taking idle land out of conservation programs — land currently home to ducks — and using it for corn farming again.
All this pressure is beginning to hit home. Ethanol isn’t going away anytime soon; you can’t unring a bill. But senators are said to be readying amendments to offer to the new ethanol bill that would use triggers or waivers to further water down the corn element. Turns out there are huge economic consequences to Congress micromanaging energy policy, and all to aid its campaign donors in agribusiness. A lesson the U.S. is now learning the hard way.
Classic example of herd behavior.