The New Choice at the Gas Pump? Corn or More Corn

Corn-based ethanol—once billed as a fuel to save our nation—isn’t much of a solution to anything, it turns out. Other than the needs of corn growers, at least.

And they have a lot of needs. After a Big Corn lobbying campaign that would make Big Oil blush, U.S. EPA this week decided to raise the levels of ethanol that can be used to fuel newer cars and trucks.

The EPA announced yesterday that it will allow 15 percent corn ethanol in gasoline (known as E15), up from the previous limit of 10 percent, but only for cars and light trucks made in 2007 or later. A decision on model years 2001-2006 is apparently still pending, but the agency says it will leave the allowable levels of corn ethanol for cars made before 2001 untouched.

Corn ethanol is perhaps not as publicly maligned as its cousin, high fructose corn syrup – oh, I’m sorry, “corn sugars,” as it’s being rebranded – but its downside is certainly no secret. You gotta wonder what the EPA is thinking…

Why might the conditional E15 approval be a bad idea? For starters, there are better sources of biofuel than corn, such as sugar cane or emerging cellulosic sources, including wood chips, corn cops, weedy grasses, and municipal waste. There’s also the question of whether it makes sense to use food as fuel. The corn needed to fill an SUV’s tank, in other words, would probably be better used to feed one of the millions of people worldwide who don’t get enough to eat.

Plus, the EPA’s decision could actually increase polluting tailpipe emissions. Environmentalists are concerned that EPA’s testing may have been biased, yet even still some of the E15-approved cars exhibited higher emissions in those tests. The larger concer, however, is so-called “misfueling,” in which people put the wrong kind of fuel in their car. Fill up your pre-2001 car with E15 and poof!—even more nasty smoke out your tailpipe.

So why does the U.S. continue to back corn as its biofuel of choice? Simple: Corn-state congresspersons. EPA’s decision, just three weeks before the mid-term elections, is undoubtedly a political maneuver by the Obama Administration designed to gain more support in Midwestern states where farming is big business and corn growers are politically powerful. EPA signaled as much, saying in its press release, “This represents the first of a number of actions that are needed from federal, state and industry towards commercialization of E15 gasoline blends.” Translation: We’re scratching your backs, corn states. You scratch ours.

Ethanol has a history of being used as a political tool in America: For instance, many Dems from farm states withheld support for the Waxman-Markey “American Clean Energy and Security Act” of 2009 because they wanted corn ethanol exempted from greenhouse gas regulations.

As Jess Leber reported previously, Congress can do a world of good by sitting on its hands – which it does best anyway – and allowing subsidies for corn ethanol to expire at the end of the year, opening the road for the use of better biofuels. If EPA’s announcement yesterday is any indication, we might find ourselves in the position of actually having to urge Congress to do nothing.

We can preempt the corn lobby, however, by mobilizing lots of signatures on this petition. Either we speak up now, and speak up loudly, or the corn-state Congresspeople will have their way with our energy policy once again.

Photo credit: kevin dooley via Flickr

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