The New Politics of Ethanol

From a state or local government perspective, Friday night's debate, which focused heavily on foreign policy, didn't have much to offer. One remark from John ...
by | September 29, 2008

From a state or local government perspective, Friday night's debate, which focused heavily on foreign policy, didn't have much to offer. One remark from John McCain stood out, however:

The point -- the point is -- the point is, we need to examine every agency of government.

First of all, by the way, I'd eliminate ethanol subsidies. I oppose ethanol subsidies.

In some ways, that remark wasn't surprising. McCain is a longtime critic of ethanol subsidies.

Still, conventional wisdom would suggest that criticizing ethanol is politically unwise, which made it surprising that McCain would bring up the topic in response to a question that wasn't even specifically about energy policy. You lose the votes of farmers whose livelihoods depend on it (farmers who live in Iowa and Minnesota), without winning anyone else, right?

That's certainly what I would have said a couple of years ago. What's changed, though, is that skepticism toward corn-based ethanol has grown. Ethanol from corn always had its critics, who argued that it wasn't an efficient way to produce fuel. Those voices have grown louder.

Even more importantly, though, the food v. fuel argument has come to the fore. Many experts blame ethanol production for increasing food prices. That doesn't just matter to succotash lovers such as myself, but to livestock farmers, who depend on corn to feed their animals.

For this reason, I've been noticing at least a small backlash against ethanol in the political arena. Missouri Treasurer Sarah Steelman, who nearly won the Republican nomination for governor this year, campaigned against ethanol. Earlier this year, Texas Gov. Rick Perry asked the federal government to lift ethanol mandates (the EPA turned down his request). I'll be very curious to see whether any state legislatures backtrack on their support for ethanol next year.

Even given all of that, however, I'm still not sure whether McCain's remark was politically wise. He is, after all, trying to persuade the public that, contrary to the Obama campaign's criticisms, he favors alternative fuels.

He might have done well to distinguish between corn-based ethanol and cellulosic ethanol -- the latter is viewed more favorably by some experts because it can be made from plants that grow on land that isn't suitable for other crops. Then again, everyone's eyes might have glazed over had he uttered the word "cellulosic."

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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