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Congress should finish the job of defunding Big Corn

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on June 22, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
June 22, 2011 3:54 pm
Corn will be processed into ethanol. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.

Doubts about corn ethanol are finally translating into votes in Congress.
The U.S. Senate last week voted 73-27 to repeal a $5 billion tax credit for refiners who blend ethanol into their gasoline.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for the $5 billion to return to the public purse. The measure was an amendment to a bill that’s doomed in the Senate, but the lopsided approval margin shows that Republicans and Democrats alike are getting fed up with a particularly appalling form of corporate welfare.

Presidential candidates and Corn Belt politicians want to stay on the good side of heartland agribusiness; their solicitude has resulted in astounding subsidies that industry doesn’t need and the nation can’t afford.

There’s the $5 billion we lose on the 45-cent-a-gallon tax credits for refiners. There’s also a 54-cent tariff on imported biofuels, which effectively prevents Brazil for selling us ethanol it refines from sugar cane, a cheaper source than corn. The Senate voted last week to kill that turkey as well.

On top of those supports, Congress has imposed a requirement that refiners add 36 billion gallons of biofuels into auto fuel by 2022 (the current requirement is about 14 billion gallons).

Genuinely benign sources of ethanol – such as cellulosic alcohol not refined from food crops – would account for much of the 36 billion gallons, but the mandate would still give agribusiness a lucrative false market for their product.

The persistence of ethanol subsidies is a testament to the raw political power of Big Corn. They make no sense except as a windfall for the Midwest.

Though billed as a green, renewable fuel, many analysts have concluded that the production of corn ethanol results in a net increase of carbon in the atmosphere.

Because growing corn is fertilizer-intensive, large quantities of chemicals are washed from corn fields into the Mississippi and Gulf of Mexico, where they wreak havoc with marine ecologies.

People also go hungry because 40 percent of America’s corn harvests are being turned into fuel. The World Bank and five United Nations agencies have just published a study calling for the repeal of biofuel subsidies around the world because of their impact on international food prices.

Public support is justified for cellulosic alcohol and other biofuels that don’t divert large quantities of crops from the human food chain. But subsidies for corn ethanol are indefensible morally and environmentally, and ought to be repealed. The Senate’s vote last week was more or less symbolic; Congress should follow up with the real thing.

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