The idea of farming our way to energy independence by turning corn into ethanol hasn't worked as advertised. A complex tangle of environmental regulations, ill-targeted federal subsidies and interference with the farm economy hasn't helped farmers, improved air quality or weaned the United States off foreign oil. Nevertheless, the Obama administration is poised to expand the effort.
Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency delayed until June its decision on whether to boost the ethanol content in gasoline from 10 percent to 15 percent while signaling plans to implement the rule at that time. Congress forced the agency's hand with a 2007 mandate to ramp up ethanol from existing technologies by 6 billion gallons to 15 billion gallons per year by 2015.
Corn-based ethanol has never lived up to its promise. Tractors planting and harvesting corn and the fossil fuels consumed to make fertilizer use up much of the energy benefit, while trucking the fuel and feed stocks uses up the rest because ethanol can't be sent via pipelines. While ethanol use can decrease the release of some pollutants, it increases others. For instance, burning ethanol creates more smog-forming pollution than using gasoline alone.
The farm lobby has long backed taxpayer ethanol subsidies, creating congressional allies who benefit richly from the special interest's campaign largesse, but most farmers haven't benefited. The vast bulk of federal subsidies profits large agribusiness rather than typical family farms.
The answer to our energy problems isn't going to be found in further twisting the farm economy with Soviet-style command and control or in forcing Americans to use fuel that isn't right for their cars. Government needs to get out of the way of domestic energy production, reduce regulation, stop wasteful subsidies and remove trade barriers that stifle innovation and cross-border cooperation to meet our energy needs. Then the market can sort out which opportunities make the most financial sense.
Unfortunately, this won't happen because politicians can't find fresh gushers of campaign cash by ending federal programs and decreasing interference in the economy.