In his interview yesterday morning on NPR on prospective USDA chief Tom Vilsack, Michael Pollan touches on the former Iowa governor’s virulent support for ethanol (which fits well with the etha-mania of the former Illinois senator who nominated him).

Pollan expresses hope that that Vilsack will steer U.S. policy away from corn-based ethanol, which most folks consider an environmental disaster, toward cellulosic ethanol, which evidently retains luster in some greenie circles. Pollan then adds that Obama’s department of energy pick, Steven Chu, is a "fierce critic of corn ethanol."


Actually, Chu is a relatively mild critic of corn-based ethanol. In fact, he generally hews to the industry party line: that corn ethanol is a "bridge" to a bright ethanol future.

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Back in March, Chu said that "corn is not the right crop for biofuels." But he added: "We should look at corn as a transitional crop." A transition to what? To cellulosic ethanol — which, according to Chu himself, remains "five to 10 years" from viability.

So that means at least five more years — all of Obama’s first term — of relying on corn. And as I’ve written before, cellulosic ethanol has been five to 10 years from viability for decades now. And serious doubts have been raised — including by ethanol boosters — about whether it will ever get there.

At any rate, I see little reason for hope that this "fierce critic of corn ethanol" will, any time soon, steer U.S. policy away from its quite-mad policy of maximizing production of our most environmentally destructive crop.

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