- The Washington Times - Monday, June 20, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have finally begun to feel queasy from their nearly-decade- long corn-alcohol bender. The Senate’s first step toward swearing off ethanol came in the form of a 73-27 vote last week on an amendment that would kill the 45-cent-per-gallon ethanol tax credit. Now that they’ve started to recover their senses, legislators shouldn’t repeat their past mistakes by overindulging in natural gas.

Ethanol supporters labeled the Senate vote “symbolic” since the underlying bill is unlikely to become law. Still, it’s about time lawmakers begin showing resistance to showering nearly $6 billion in taxpayer dollars on an inefficient, uneconomic source of energy for no other reason than to curry political favor. The ethanol subsidy program was launched in 2004 as a gift to Midwestern states, especially Iowa with its influential role in presidential primaries. The federal largesse convinced American farmers to divert 40 percent of the nation’s corn crop away from human and animal consumption into fuel for thirsty vehicles. Fewer ears for food have led to higher grocery prices here and set off a tsunami of rising food costs across the globe, prompting the World Bank to ask governments to halt their ethanol subsidies.

The Senate measure - taken together with a House Appropriations Committee vote last week to reduce 2012 subsidies for other inefficient energy sources by 27 percent - is a sign of progress. That’s why it’s baffling that some lawmakers are now tempted to plunk down taxpayer dollars on another brand of “green” energy: natural gas. The NAT GAS Act, H.R. 1380, would give purchasers of natural-gas-fueled vehicles tax credits ranging from $7,000 for cars to $64,000 for trucks. Additional tax breaks would go to natural-gas producers and station owners. The giveaways would cost Americans an estimated $5 billion to $9 billion over five years.

It’s simply not necessary to subsidize natural gas. It’s already cheaper and cleaner than gasoline, and it’s one fuel that proudly bears the label “Made in America.” There are an estimated 2,000 trillion cubic feet of it beneath our feet - enough to last a hundred years.

Rather than trade one expensive boondoggle for another, Congress should turn its attention to threats from radical environmentalists who are scheming to turn off the gas. They claim hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” - a breakthrough method of pumping water, sand and lubricants into drill holes to crack rock and release gas - endangers ground water. As a result of anti-fracking activism, New York State has sued the Environmental Protection Agency for declining to perform an environmental impact study on plans to use the technique in New York City’s watershed; other states are looking at various restrictions.

These developments have placed EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in the unlikely role of defending a fossil fuel. In May, she told a U.S. House Oversight Committee that she was not aware of any proven case in which fracking had contaminated ground water.

The unforeseen consequences of ethanol subsidies should convince lawmakers that they need to get on the wagon. Rather than relapse into the subsidy habit with natural gas, they should pour their energy into keeping green hands off the spigot. The free market doesn’t need help from Washington to decide which sources of energy make the most sense.

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