Politics in the Tank

One ingredient in the energy-policy mix concocted by the Bush administration is alternative fuels - in a word, ethanol. This form of grain alcohol, made mainly from Midwestern corn, clearly has the administration's seal of approval.

So far, the Bush team has ordered California to use ethanol as a cleaner-burning additive to gasoline sold in the state - despite loud objections from Sacramento, which argued that a less-expensive choice would be reformulated gasoline already on the market. The state has now filed suit to block the federal order.

The administration also has encouraged Congress to extend federal incentives for the manufacture of vehicles that can run on ethanol.

And there'll be plenty more opportunities to get behind ethanol, since the fuel has powerful boosters on Capitol Hill who are sponsoring bills to further expand its market. Farm-belt lawmakers are fervent about ethanol.

But there's a problem here. Is this alternative source of energy an economic and environmental plus, or a political plum?

Carmakers build ethanol-burning vehicles primarily to receive credits that lower federal gas-mileage requirements for their fleets. Thus they're able to build even more gas-guzzling SUVs. Ethanol is only scantily available anyway, particularly outside the Midwest. It has done little to offset the consumption of gasoline made from imported oil.

Moreover, the supposed pollution-cutting value of ethanol is disputed. The EPA sees some smog-reducing benefit, but a 1999 study by the National Academy of Sciences casts doubt on that.

Ethanol from corn, or similar crop-derived fuels from soy beans or sugar cane, may indeed have a role in the energy future. It's just that, so far, that role has been driven as much by politics as by science. Big federal tax subsidies go to ethanolmakers - who also happen to be big campaign contributors to both major US parties.

Before the ethanol boosters move even further into the fast lane, the taxpaying and gas-buying public deserves a clearer sense of the benefits.

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