While recent Supreme Court rulings on voting rights and same-sex marriage have held the nation's attention, another decision slipped quietly under the radar. In late June, the Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to the EPA’s program to raise the ethanol content of gasoline from 10 to 15 percent, thus clearing the way for adding more ethanol to gasoline.
The Senate’s Farm Bill, meanwhile, includes more than $1 billion worth of support for all things ethanol. While supporters see this action at the federal level for ethanol as bullish, many states are describing it more bluntly, and calling it BS.
The fact that most ethanol is made from corn means that an increase in the ethanol content of gas could worsen a variety of problems, ranging from higher food prices to elevated levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Ethanol production has also been linked to the spread of a dangerous form of the deadly bacterium E. coli.
While current federal policy continues to back ethanol, a few individual states have opted out. In June, Florida repealed its Renewable Fuel Standard with its mandate that gasoline contain 10 percent ethanol. And in May, Maine lawmakers approved a bill banning ethanol in gas and asked the federal government to do the same.
Maine House Republicans posted the following on Maine.gov: "Evidence is mounting that ethanol is a failure in virtually every way. It takes more energy to produce it than the fuel provides. Food supplies around the world have been disrupted because so much of the corn crop now goes to ethanol. It costs taxpayers billions of dollars in subsidies at a time when our nation is already $12 trillion in debt. Even environmentalists have turned against it; research shows that ethanol production increases the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere."
Maine's Democrats have voted and spoken against ethanol as well. Indeed, "bipartisan" doesn't begin to describe the diversity of opposition to ethanol. The fuel's many problems have drawn together usually unfriendly bedfellows, including the petroleum lobby, environmentalists, foodies, auto enthusiasts (cars don't like ethanol, either) and citizens of all political bents -- pretty much everyone outside of the Corn Belt and the D.C. Beltway.
Currently, 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop is used to make ethanol, and already, increased demand for corn has led to more land being cleared for agriculture. The intensive tillage and monoculture-style farming system that produces most corn has resulted in widespread loss of topsoil -- 80 to 100 billion tons a year by some estimates.
The more topsoil that's lost, the less carbon dioxide it can sequester, a situation that essentially yields the same result as directly adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Because of agriculture's impact on soil loss, Allan Savory, a rangeland and desertification specialist, considers agriculture one of global warming's worst culprits, and has compared its effects to those of coal mining.
Thick, healthy soils also absorb and hold water, while thin soil, which is less able to retain rainfall and irrigation, only increases the amount of water used in agriculture, and ultimately washes away even more topsoil.
When the energy costs of production, processing and transport are added up, ethanol is a net loss, according to T.J. Rogers, CEO of solar-panel maker SunPower Corp.
"Ethanol is a total waste," Rogers told Watchdog.org, echoing the words of the Maine Republicans. "The bottom line is that it takes between one and 1.3 gallons of gasoline-equivalent energy to produce one gallon of ethanol."
Meanwhile, on the food-safety front, a byproduct of ethanol production called “distillers grains,” which is widely used in cattle feed, turns out to be a rich source of E. coli 0157, the pathogen behind several recent recalls of E. coli-tainted beef. Though links between distillers grains and specific cases of food-borne illness have yet to be established, it has been demonstrated that the higher the percentage of distillers grains in cows' diets, the higher the level of E. coli 0157 is found in those cows.
It's frustrating to see ethanol policy, which is clearly destructive on so many fronts, being pushed for such transparent reasons. And one has to wonder if the level of federal support for ethanol would be different if, say, the New Hampshire primary kicked off the presidential election season. Now, of course, it starts with the Iowa caucus –– which is conveniently located in the heart of corn country. At least the recent rebuffs to ethanol in Florida and Maine are hopeful signs that fighting it out at the state level can be an effective means of change.
As we've just witnessed with same-sex marriage, sometimes when the states lead, the federal government follows.
Ari LeVaux is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He writes about food and food politics in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.