- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Memorial Day’s approach means summer is finally here. The season of barbecues, baseball games and long family road trips has begun. Americans packing up their cars to head to the beach or a national park will find it’s also the season of higher gas prices and will be frustrated as a little more of their paychecks disappears into their gas tanks.

Because it’s always the season of political pandering, many politicians will use this opportunity to call for new energy policies that purport to solve this problem. A favorite with both parties is more support for producing corn-based ethanol. Ethanol is sold as the key to freeing America from dependence of foreign oil, lowering the cost of fuel, and improving the environment.

If only it were that easy. It would be wonderful if addressing our energy problems was as simple as increasing the production and use of ethanol made from corn, which one of America’s most bountiful crops. Unfortunately, ethanol cannot meaningfully substitute for oil given our current energy infrastructure. Moreover, government-driven ethanol production creates its own set of problems, from its effect on the market for other products to its environmental impact.

Currently, 12 percent of the U.S. corn crop is converted into ethanol, which accounts for 2 percent of domestic gasoline. A University of Minnesota researcher estimated that even if the government induced farmers to use all corn grown for ethanol, this would reduce gasoline consumption by just 12 percent. In other words, ethanol is not the path to “energy independence.” Even if America heavily invests in increasing the use of ethanol, we would still depend on oil from Saudi Arabia, Iran and Venezuela to keep the country running.

In addition, dedicating all of the U.S. corn crop to ethanol production would significantly damage markets for agricultural and related goods. Corn prices already have been rising and are affecting the costs of everyday staples, from tortillas produced directly with corn to steaks, since corn plays a major role in feeding cattle. Thousands of Mexicans recently protested the rising cost of corn, urging their government to keep prices low. If U.S. farmers sharply curtail corn exports, count on a major ripple affect around the world.

With demand for corn on the rise via ethanol, it’s likely more farmland will be converted to corn production, and much land lying fallow will be put into production. Is this good news for the environment? At best, converting from oil to ethanol would be a mixed bag for Mother Nature. Producing corn requires massive amounts of water, and the use of pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals, which can adversely affect wildlife habitats and groundwater supplies.

Another problem with ethanol is it takes a lot of energy to make it. The best case scenario is that producing ethanol yields just 25 percent more energy than it consumes from fossil fuels. Other researchers make far lower estimates, some even arguing ethanol production consumes more energy than it produces.

None of this means ethanol has no role to play in American’s energy infrastructure. Ethanol could be made more productive through new technologies and distribution systems. Instead of just relying on corn, sugar and agricultural waste also have the potential to be converted to fuel. All these efforts deserve more exploration since developing new technologies and protocols is America’s best hope for energy independence and reliable, affordable fuel.

Yet government attempts to expedite a conversion away from oil to other energy sources could do more damage than good. It could impede technological progress since subsidizing the development of one, politically attractive energy source, like ethanol, discourages private investment in other alternative fuel sources — ones far more likely to lead to a viable alternative to oil.

A politician who calls for Washington to reduce interference in energy markets and allow the market to work probably wouldn’t attract applause or big donations. Yet this is exactly what America needs to thrive as an innovative energy producer. Government corn won’t get us there.

Michelle D. Bernard, a lawyer and president and chief executive officer of the Independent Women’s Forum, is the author of the soon-to-be-released “Women’s Progress: How Women are Wealthier, Healthier, and More Independent Than Ever Before.”

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