Editorial: Ethanol lobby losing clout in Iowa caucuses

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Renewable energy, yes. Ethanol, not so much.

Sen. Ted Cruz, running for the GOP presidential nomination, says the corn-based biofuel deserves no special federal supports, and we have to agree, if for different reasons.


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Cruz, who opposes ethanol supports even as he campaigns to win the Iowa caucuses, opposes government policies that favor any form of renewable energy, calling it “corporate welfare.” He also represents, we should note, a huge oil state, Texas. We, on the other hand, see an important government role in encouraging the development of renewable energy sources. We just think ethanol is a pretty lousy renewable fuel, no more environmentally friendly than oil or gas.

For decades, you couldn’t get elected dog catcher in Iowa if you didn’t defend ethanol supports — Iowa grows a lot of corn — but Cruz continues to fare well in the polls. In part, this is because other issues, such as national security, have eclipsed farming issues in Iowa. And it’s because basic conservative principles, beginning with the one that says government should butt out of the market, are more a factor than ever in this election.

Bottom line, it’s good to see serious skepticism about ethanol being expressed even in Iowa. We only wish more candidates — Republicans and Democrats — were as willing to buck the ethanol lobby.

Backers of ethanol say it saves money and does less harm to the environment. A recent study released by the University of Illinois at Chicago concluded Illinois could reduce carbon pollution by up to 663,646 tons a year by giving motorists access to fuels that were at least 15 percent ethanol, up from the current 10 percent.

That kind of thinking led the Obama administration five weeks ago to boost the amount of ethanol and other biofuels in the U.S. gasoline supply, requiring more than 18 billion gallons of such fuel in 2016.

But you don’t have to turn to the Koch brothers, kings of fossil fuels, to find critics of the Obama administration move. Environmentalist groups have long questioned the virtues of ethanol. It is cleaner than fossil fuel when it comes out of tailpipes, but its production requires enormous amounts of land, water and energy. In 2014, the Canada-based Institute for Sustainable Development estimated the overall carbon dioxide and climate impact of biofuels to be about the same as for petroleum.

To question the value of ethanol, however, is not to dismiss the role of government in fostering the development of other, more convincingly environmentally friendly, renewable fuels, such as wind and solar energy. Supporting renewables in the United States is a matter of protecting and creating jobs. Weaning the nation off fossil fuels is essential if we are to adhere to the new international climate change rules agreed upon in Paris.

And even if you’re not much worried about climate change, as former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pointed out in a Facebook posting recently, a “clean energy future is a wise investment.” Just ask China, where people are really tired of wearing those air pollution masks.

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