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Al Gore Turns His Back on Ethanol

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Is his startling admission all that startling? Or it is just confirmation that politicians are politicians are politicians?

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Al Gore made headlines when, at a green energy conference in Athens yesterday, he called his support for corn-based ethanol a mistake.

"One of the reasons I made that mistake is that I paid particular attention to the farmers in my home state of Tennessee, and I had a certain fondness for the farmers in the state of Iowa because I was about to run for president," Gore said.

What may be the most newsworthy aspect of this statement is that it marks one of the few times a politician, US or otherwise, has told the un-spun truth.

According to Reuters, the International Energy Industry pegged total 2009 US ethanol subsidies at $7.7 billion.

"It is not a good policy to have these massive subsidies for first-generation (read: corn) ethanol," Gore continued.

But those subsidies happened to be roundly supported by Gore.

In 1994, as vice-president, Gore cast the deciding vote to continue ethanol tax incentives and later said, "I have not ducked when votes for ... agricultural interests were on the floor."

In 1998, at the Third Annual Farm Journal Conference, Gore announced, "I was … proud to stand up for the ethanol tax exemption when it was under attack in the Congress -- at one point, supplying a tie-breaking vote in the Senate to save it. The more we can make this home-grown fuel a successful, widely-used product, the better-off our farmers and our environment will be."
So, what to make of Gore's comment in Athens stating that "First-generation ethanol I think was a mistake" because "the energy conversion ratios are at best very small" after making corn ethanol a centerpiece of his environmental policy?

As he explained, "It's hard once such a program is put in place to deal with the lobbies that keep it going."

It is hard to "deal with the lobbies" that can make or break a political candidate.

Craig Holman, a lobbying expert with the Washington, DC consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, tells Minyanville, "I'm from Minnesota, and no one could run for statewide office in Minnesota without supporting the ethanol subsidies. Everyone's always done that even though it's inefficient and expensive."

And, as Bill Maher explained, "No one asked for corn in their gas tank… But I suppose if the first presidential primary was in Vermont, we would all be pouring maple syrup into our gas tanks."

Goldman Sachs (GS) estimates the US ethanol industry will divert 41% of the American corn crop this year, which, as Al Gore himself says, will further raise food prices at a time that can be called, at best, inopportune.

"It takes around 400 pounds of corn to make 25 gallons of ethanol," Benjamin Senauer, an applied economics professor at the University of Minnesota, said. "It's not going to be a very good diet but that's roughly enough to keep an adult person alive for a year."

However, the lobbies whose grip even the second-highest elected official in the country could not escape have put the framework in place that ensures corn ethanol isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

Here is a projection by the EPA [pdf], detailing the expected breakdown, in billions of gallons, of ethanol sources by 2022:

Switchgrass (perennial grass): 7.9
Soy biodiesel and corn oil: 1.34
Crop residues (corn stover, includes bagasse): 5.5
Woody biomass (forestry residue): 0.1
Corn ethanol: 15.0
Other (municipal solid waste (MSW)): 2.6
Animal fats and yellow grease: 0.38
Algae: 0.1
Imports: 2.2

About twice as much corn will be used for fuel than the runner-up, switchgrass, which, as far as anyone knows, people don't also eat. However, with the almost-obscene number of federal dollars involved, why wouldn't the corn lobby fight tooth-and-nail to mandate production of 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol annually?
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