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The Great Ethanol Corndoggle

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The Great Ethanol Corndoggle
Rand Clifford

Massive craters hugging the local convenience store this fall were planted with 20,000-gallon plastic bulbs, then filled in, paved over. And new pumps have sprouted, spanking-fresh with lifelike graphics of thigh-sized ears of corn seductively half-husked. So clean and appealing, this face of new energy, helping consumers feel good about maybe “paying a little extra” to benefit the environment. America, entrenched energy politics guarantee that death, destruction and fleecing remain fundamental profit-boosting components. It’s like peace, something beautiful to talk about, a noble goal; we even possess means of realizing it, but there is no money in peace. Chaos and war pay best for those in on the fixing.

And, “paying a little extra” is a mean euphemism when it comes to the average taxpaying citizen pulling up for a feed from one of the new corn pumps. Before even touching a nozzle they have paid at least $3.60 per gallon for corn ethanol through subsidies and tax breaks—the bulk of that to ADM (the Archer Daniels Midland corporation, “Supermarket to the World”). (1) And that’s just the federal subsidies, most corn states add subsidies of their own. Another way to put it...every dollar of actual corn ethanol profit costs taxpayers about $30. Corn itself is already America’s most subsidized crop, swilling over $50 billion in federal fixings between 1995 and 2005. Add to that Ethanol’s 200+ tax breaks and subsidies worth almost $6 billion per year, and it is obvious why ADM has done everything possible to program Americans into associating “corn” with “ethanol”. ADM is making a killing in one of the most successful mass boondoggles in history.

A small but especially rude part of the pre-payment complex goes for such things as ADM full-page full-color ads in major newspapers showing an ear of corn festooned with an American flag, and a picture of John F. Kennedy along with his famous quote: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Sure adds a sick dimension to those little makeshift signs most fuel pumps wear now: Pre-Pay Only.

For The People, a solid benefit of corn ethanol’s growth as a motor fuel is establishment of distribution infrastructure for a fuel with fantastic promise—if done right; a stepping stone from a hydrocarbon-based economy to a carbohydrate-based economy. And that’s about it right now for benefits to The People because corn for ethanol is a loser. Even Senator John McCain hit a kernel of truth in 2004:

“Ethanol is a product that would not exist if Congress didn’t create an artificial market for it. No one would be willing to buy it.... Yet thanks to agricultural subsidies and ethanol producer subsidies, it is now very big business—tens of billions of dollars that have enriched a handful of corporate interests—primarily one big corporation, ADM. Ethanol does nothing to reduce fuel consumption, nothing to increase our energy independence, nothing to improve air quality.”
Of course McCain’s “ethanol”comes from corn. Again, Americans have paid dearly being conditioned into thinking ethanol = corn.

McCain’s song was different in the heart of corn country two years later: “I support ethanol and I think it is a vital alternative energy source not only because of our dependency on foreign oil but its greenhouse gas reduction effects.” (2)

McCain got it right the first time, 2004. But ADM is the reigning queen of corporate welfare, enjoying an incredible return on investment via their lavish campaign contributions, of which Senator McCain is now apparently tapping. Corn country is home to many voters...but many voters live downstream.

Cornfield fertilizers flow down the Mississippi, with devastating effects on the Gulf of Mexico. Mostly in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, farmers planted 93 million acres of corn in 2007, applying over 200 million pounds of nitrogen-based fertilizer that eventually feeds explosive growth of algae in the Gulf. After the algae dies and sinks to the bottom, its decay so depletes oxygen levels that nothing can survive—contributing to a dead zone in the Gulf that this year covered almost 8,000 square miles. More corn means larger dead zone, and researchers fear that projected corn surges could collapse the ecosystem. For people making a living harvesting fish, crab, oysters, clams...for Gulf fishermen, ethanol prepayment is a deadly threat. If only they had even a fraction of ADM’s political muscle....

So where does all the nitrogen-based fertilizer come from? Fossil fuel, methane mostly, natural gas. Fundamentally, corn ethanol is just a recycler of natural gas. In fact, the overall fossil fuel inputs to produce a gallon of corn ethanol equal more energy than is in that gallon. That’s why Steven Chu, who in 1997 shared the Nobel Prize for Physics, says:

“From the point of view of the environment, it would be better if we just burnt oil.”

Food-versus-fuel controversy is yet another corn ethanol negative. Filling an average SUV with ethanol takes about 450 pounds of corn, enough to feed a person for one year.

“The king of ethanol hype” is Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa. From the heart of corn country he chants: “Everything about ethanol is good, good, good.” Senator, sir, you are right, and wrong, wrong, wrong. The right kinds of ethanol are fantastically promising, exactly what corn ethanol is not—unless you are ADM, funded by ADM, or make a living in corn country.

ADM presents a transparent study in American politics: Millions poured into reelection coffers mean annual harvests of billions in subsidies, and tax breaks, and.... Securities analysts estimate that “At the very least”, about half of ADM’s annual profits are from products heavily subsidized or protected by the U.S. government. And now that ADM has corn ethanol, and the supporting political machinery, it’s going to be damn tough to progress to serious energy crops.

Corn is a precious food crop. Corn is a lousy energy crop. Our entrenched corn ethanol boondoggle sprouted in the 1970s, with ADM conjuring new ways to profit from corn. Stir in ADM’s chairman, master salesman Dwayne Andreas, his coddling of Kansas Senator Bob Dole and Dole’s GOP brethren, simmer with the money lid off...and now we have an expensive, overcooked product more problem than solution.

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Rand Clifford lives in Spokane, Washington. His novels and earlier essays can be found at
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