THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Globe editorial

King Corn cows Washington

March 13, 2009
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PRESIDENT OBAMA has said science on his watch will not be "distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda." But when it comes to the political agenda of agribusiness, his own Cabinet, and his party, are letting science down to prop up corn-based ethanol.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, formerly the governor of the corn state of Iowa, wants "aggressive action" from the Environmental Protection Agency to increase the amount of ethanol in gasoline - from 10 percent of the blend to 15 percent. He has been seconded by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Tom Harkin, also from Iowa; and the Governors Biofuels Coalition, co-chaired by Democrat Chet Culver of Iowa.

All this advocacy is for a substance that is receiving billions of dollars in subsidies already, despite growing evidence of its environmental harm. A year ago, researchers from Princeton, Georgetown, Iowa State, and Woods Hole found that increased production of corn-based ethanol would devour forests and grasslands, and possibly double greenhouse gas emissions over 30 years.

A paper this winter in the online journal Energy and Environmental Science by Stanford researcher Mark Jacobson ranked corn-based ethanol fuel at the bottom of alternative energy sources, "with respect to climate, air pollution, land use, wildlife damage and chemical waste."

This does not even get into the problems associated with the diversion of corn from food for people and feed for livestock.

It's all part of a larger dismissal of scientific data by farm-belt Democrats to serve the political agendas of agribusiness. Obama's proposal to end subsidies to high-earning farmers has already been rejected by Senate Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat on Harkin's Agriculture Committee. Nelson, Conrad, and Harkin are all among the top recipients of agribusiness campaign cash in the last decade.

As an Illinois senator, Obama said ethanol represented "the future of the auto industry." On the presidential campaign trail in the Midwest, Obama called himself a "strong supporter of ethanol." But sobered by incoming science, he couched his support more recently by calling it a "transitional technology."

The evidence is mounting that ethanol is not even worth the transition. Ethanol provides a bold moment for Obama to prove he isn't just a cornfield scarecrow, and that he has the stuffing to shoo away politics with the power of science.

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