Politics & Policy

Talent’S Folly

Senator Jim Talent, the Missouri Republican, is one of the senators we admire most. That’s why we’re saddened to see him backing a costly and fruitless giveaway to special interests.

Yesterday, Talent proposed–and the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources passed–an amendment to the Senate energy bill that would mandate eight billion gallons per year in ethanol production. That puts Talent–at least on this issue–in the company of ex-Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, who got a five-billion-gallon mandate in last year’s bill.

Because ethanol is federally subsidized, this exercise in central planning would cost taxpayers $2.3 billion annually. Sen. Talent notes that his amendment, by raising demand for corn–and therefore its price–would reduce federal spending on farm subsidies. But the idea of reducing one set of bills for taxpayers by raising another is, to say the least, odd. In any case, higher corn prices also make food more expensive to the tune of billions of dollars per year–a cost borne directly by American families. These families may also end up paying more at the pump: According to a Department of Energy study, boosting ethanol use to the level Talent proposes could raise gas prices by 3.6 cents per gallon.

Ethanol’s backers tout it as a clean, efficient fuel, but their tendentious claims ignore ethanol’s costs. It may emit less sulfur and carbon monoxide than gasoline, but it creates more smog. Raising ethanol production would also require the growing of more corn, and such industrial agriculture contaminates soil, water, and air.

It isn’t even clear that ethanol is an energy saver. Some researchers say it takes more energy to produce a gallon of ethanol than that gallon yields when burned. While not everyone agrees with this claim, it is clear that whatever energy savings might come from ethanol are meager at best.

“Energy politics often has little

to do with cost-benefit analysis.”

Of course, energy politics often has little to do with cost-benefit analysis, and ethanol’s popularity is due primarily to the influence of powerful midwestern corn growers. This is especially obvious in Congress’s failure to remove tariffs against countries such as Brazil, which produces cheaper ethanol than the U.S. If the objective were simply to get more ethanol in American cars, legislators would be neutral on the question of where that ethanol came from. Their protectionism makes high-sounding claims about reducing our dependence on foreign oil ring a trifle disingenuous.

Sen. Talent argues that renewable fuels are where the market is headed anyway. Maybe so. But if he’s right, the market should be capable of satisfying demand for ethanol without an assist from American taxpayers. There’s no reason all Americans should pay to line a few farmers’ pockets.

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