Times slams Obama on ethanol

In an article implicitly critical of the biofuel, the paper explores Barack Obama's position on it and his ties to the industry.

Published June 23, 2008 8:19PM (EDT)

In a big article printed Monday, the New York Times' Larry Rohter took a critical look at Barack Obama's position on ethanol and his connections to the industry that produces it.

"Obama is running as a reformer who is seeking to reduce the influence of special interests. But like any other politician, he has powerful constituencies that help shape his views," Rohter wrote. "And when it comes to domestic ethanol, almost all of which is made from corn, he also has advisers and prominent supporters with close ties to the industry at a time when energy policy is a point of sharp contrast between the parties and their presidential candidates."

Truth be told, Rohter didn't actually show that much in the way of a connection between Obama and the ethanol industry. He named only two specific links. One was former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who's on the board at three ethanol companies and is something of a mentor to Obama. The other connection is Jason Grumet, who's Obama's lead advisor on energy and environmental issues. Grumet came from the National Commission on Energy Policy, which Rohter notes has been associated with Daschle and also with former Sen. Bob Dole, a big ethanol supporter -- but that's not really an industry connection, and there are plenty of people besides Daschle and Dole involved in the NCEP.

That said, though, the merits of Obama's position on ethanol -- which he supports -- are questionable. The production of corn ethanol actually requires fossil fuels right now, and it doesn't provide that big of a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. (In fact, burning corn ethanol may even generate more greenhouse gases than burning regular fuel does, as there's also the emission from the increased use of fertilizer to be considered.) Then there's the question of rising food prices as a consequence of the increased production of corn ethanol, and the water used to grow the corn and a whole bunch of other concerns that make the biofuel seem more and more like a bad idea that's been funded because politicians need votes from corn farmers and their family members, friends and neighbors. Rohter notes briefly that Obama has recently focused on cellulosic ethanol, which holds much more potential as a viable substitute for fossil fuels. But, as Rohter points out, large-scale production of cellulosic ethanol is still a way off, and it isn't yet economically viable.

Separately, the Washington Post's Alec MacGillis looked at one quote that Jason Furman, the Obama campaign's new economic policy director, gave the Times. Furman said that Obama's position on ethanol is based on the merits of the fuel. "That is what has always motivated him on this issue, and will continue to determine his policy going forward," Furman said. But as MacGillis notes, that hasn't always been Obama's stated rationale. In April, Obama said, "Look, I've been a strong ethanol supporter because Illinois ... is a major ethanol producer."

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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