Biofuel policy has made it to the polls. Yesterday, the National Center for Public Policy Research, a nonprofit, non-partisan educational foundation based in Washington, D.C., released the results of a survey (PDF) conducted at the beginning of this month which claims to have found that most Americans — “including those in the Farm Belt” — want Congress to reduce or eliminate the mandated use of corn ethanol.

In response to the key question, “What do you think Congress should do now?” with respect to the Renewable Fuels Standard (which last December raised the minimum volume of biofuels used in the United States from 7.5 billion gallons a year in 2012 to 36 billion gallons a year by 2022, of which 15 billion gallons is expected to be supplied by “conventional biofuel” — ethanol derived from corn starch — by 2015), 42 percent of the participants in the survey thought that that the mandate should be eliminated to reduce ethanol production and use. Of the rest:

  • 25 percent wanted the mandate to be partly eliminated to reduce ethanol production and use;
  • 16 percent wanted it left unchanged;
  • Six percent wanted it partly expanded to increase ethanol production and use;
  • and 2 percent wanted it significantly expanded to increase ethanol production and use.

Nine percent were undecided, didn’t know what to answer, or refused to answer.

Even among people living in the Farm Belt, 25 percent percent said they wanted the ethanol mandate repealed entirely, and another 30 percent wanted it scaled back.

According to the NCPPR’s press release,

The poll was conducted by Wilson Research Strategies, which surveyed 802 voting-age adults who are likely to vote in the 2008 general elections. It included 37 percent registered Democrats, 30 percent independents, and 29 percent Republicans. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.46 percent at 95 percent confidence interval.

I’m not a statistician, but I gather that polls, if they are random and based on suitably stratified samples, can survey as few as 800 people nationwide and the results can still be considered representative. The results (see the end of the survey) do seem to be broadly representative of Americans in terms of gender, age, political affiliation, rural-urban split, educational level, etc.

This is not the first poll on ethanol policy conducted in the United States. The Renewable Fuels Association (the ethanol industry lobby) conducts polls regularly, and last October, released the results of a survey (PDF) of just over 1,000 adults which found that:

  • 77 percent of Americans want the government to provide incentives to encourage refiners to reduce their use of oil and increase use of renewables.
  • More than three-quarters (78 percent) maintain that increasing domestic ethanol production will help create new jobs and improve the economy in rural America.
  • 58 percent believe more use of domestically produced ethanol will help reduce our dependence on foreign oil.
  • Three-quarters (75 percent) of Americans view ethanol as somewhat important in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, with 41 percent viewing ethanol as extremely important in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

and that:

84 percent of Americans believe something other than ethanol is at the root cause of rising food prices. Specifically, higher oil prices (46 percent), increased global demand (15 percent), and adverse weather conditions like drought (14 percent) were deemed to have a greater impact on food prices than ethanol production (seven percent).

If anybody knows where to find the actual survey questions, please post a link below.

Frankly, I don’t know what is going on here. I suspect that education — to use the term loosely — has played a part. Tellingly, in the NCPPR survey, pollsters first informed respondents that Congress approved a law in December that doubles the amount of corn ethanol required in the nation’s gasoline supply. They then explained that ethanol production is expected to use one-third of the U.S. corn crop this year, and more than that through 2015 unless the ethanol mandate is scaled back. A synopsis of the positions of both proponents and opponents of the ethanol mandate followed. Only after this prelude did they ask, “What do you think Congress should do now?” with respect to the mandate.

Meanwhile, over on this side of the Atlantic, where policy-makers are facing a more organized, and more-vocal opposition to the European Commission’s proposal to mandate 10 percent “renewable fuels” in road transport by 2020, José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, for some reason decided to run an online poll on his website, asking visitors to express their opinions on the proposal. The poll was worded as follows:

Should the E.U. stick to its target to reach 10% biofuels by 2020?
O Yes
O No

I first became aware of the poll on May 30, when a contact at the European Federation for Transport and Environment sent around an “all points bulletin” email drawing the transport-policy community’s attention to the poll. As of that Friday morning, with around just 3,600 votes, the poll was running 95 percent in favor of the mandate. I suspect the high “Yes” vote at that time was because most of the visitors to the page had been members of the agricultural community. Apparently the EFTE’s efforts to get out the vote were highly successful, and by the end of the weekend, the earlier results had been completely over-turned and were showing a majority for “No." By the end of last week (the last time I saw the poll still displayed), the “No” votes outnumbered the “Yes” votes eight to one out of approximately 60,000 responses.

Then the poll suddenly disappeared from view. The ever-helpful folks at CAP Health Check noticed also, and yesterday, they posted a note titled, “Barroso’s disappearing biofuels poll.” Here is part of it:

At the last count, some 89 percent of the 60,000 respondents had voted for the E.U. to drop its biofuels targets, which have been widely criticised for taking food out of the mouths of the world’s hungry to put in the gas tanks of European vehicles. As of today, the poll has mysteriously disappeared from President Barroso’s website, and nowhere has the result been announced. Has the President of the Commission been taking election advice from Robert Mugabe? [Emphasis in the original.]

Ouch!

Just a caveat: Unlike the U.S. polls, President Barroso’s poll was not the least bit scientific. (It allowed multiple votes, for one: All one had to do was refresh the page.) But, apart from the mystery of the disappearing results, it does show — at the very least — the power of the internet and the surprising strength of Europe’s biofuel-policy critics.