- The Washington Times - Friday, October 21, 2011

As Secretary of Agriculture during the Reagan administration, I helped the American ethanol industry take off. Imagine my surprise to read an editorial in The Washington Times (“Corn-fueled politics,” Oct. 17) contending that American ethanol’s growth results from “allowing liberal zealots to set public policy” by “fulfilling their environmental fantasies.”

As President Reagan used to say, “Facts are stubborn things.” In fact, federal ethanol incentives were established to advance a goal that conservatives embrace: energy independence in a dangerous world. The program began after the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ oil embargoes of the 1970s, which exposed our dangerous dependence on imported oil. It has been supported by Republican presidents from Ronald Reagan through George W. Bush - and they were right in their support. By 2010, the United States produced 13 billion gallons of ethanol, which displaced the need for 445 million barrels of oil imported largely from unstable or unfriendly regimes, from Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran.

Meanwhile, ethanol advances another goal shared by Americans across the spectrum: creating good-paying jobs that can’t be outsourced. Last year, the industry helped employ more than 400,000 workers in every sector of the economy. At a time when good jobs are hard to find and keep, more than 83 percent of these jobs pay at least $40,000 a year, and 99 percent provide health coverage and other benefits.

Far from “filling the pockets of wealthy farming giants,” the industry is a boon to the struggling small and rural communities where the nation’s 200-plus bio-refineries are located. Often including substantial local investment, these bio-refineries strengthen the market for corn, providing growers with a steady source of income. An average ethanol refinery provides 50 direct jobs, including for scientists and other professionals as well as production workers, and it pumps more than $360 million a year into the local economy.

American ethanol is a high-performance product. From the 10 percent blends that have been used for many years without harmful consequences to the 15 percent blends that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently tested and approved, ethanol-blended fuels are approved under the warranties of all the auto manufacturers that market vehicles in this country.

Moreover, according to a comprehensive engineering analysis performed by the internationally recognized firm Ricardo Inc., the performance of older cars and light trucks manufactured between 1994 and 2000 isn’t hurt by moving from 10 percent to 15 percent ethanol in gasoline.

Ethanol, after all, contains 35 percent oxygen. When oxygen is added to fuel, the result is more complete combustion. That is one reason why the Indy Racing League, home of the Indianapolis 500, has been using 100 percent ethanol as its official race fuel since 1997. Race-car drivers have no margin for error, and if ethanol is good enough for them, it must be good enough for other motorists.

When it comes to the environment, ethanol is one of our best tools to curb air pollution. Because it promotes more complete fuel combustion, ethanol reduces harmful tailpipe emissions. In fact, blending ethanol in gasoline cuts carbon-dioxide emissions by up to 29 percent. According to the Argonne National Laboratory, the production and use of 13 billion gallons of ethanol in 2010 reduced CO2 emissions by 21.9 million tons. The environmental impact is the same as removing 3.5 million cars and pickups from the nation’s highways.

Because ethanol is American-made and clean-burning and generates jobs in rural America, presidents and congressional majorities from both parties have encouraged the ethanol industry. But ethanol incentives aren’t the sort of corporate welfare that has come under fire from conservatives and liberals alike. For instance, the EPA has authorized, not mandated, 15 percent blends of ethanol with gasoline. As for other ethanol incentives, they pale in comparison to more than $130 billion in tax subsidies for the oil industry over the past 30 years.

When the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, was told that his most successful military commander, Ulysses S. Grant, drank too much, he famously replied that someone should have some of Grant’s whiskey bottles delivered to his other generals. If federal encouragement for American ethanol really represents the work of “liberal zealots” or “environmental fantasies” - neither of which I usually support - maybe we need more of them.

JOHN R. BLOCK

Former secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture

Washington