The energy bill members of Congress promised to approve quickly after last summer's blackouts is hung up in House-Senate conference wrangling over several issues - particularly federal tax breaks for ethanol.
Ethanol is a gasoline additive made from corn. Supporters argue it creates cleaner fuel and lessens US dependence on foreign oil. Farmers and agribusiness in the Midwest's corn-growing states see it as a way to put money in farmers' and companies' pockets and save family farms that might otherwise go under.
But ethanol is rarely available outside the Midwest, and scientific evidence is mixed at best on whether ethanol really reduces pollution. Other studies indicate it takes more energy to create a gallon of ethanol than a gallon of ethanol produces. The ethanol industry has survived to date mainly on federal tax subsidies.
House-Senate conferees, led by Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa and Rep. Bill Thomas (R) of California, are arguing over a proposal to increase ethanol-production tax incentives. Under the proposal, fuel suppliers would produce 3 billion gallons of ethanol-blended gas a year by 2005, growing to 5 billion gallons a year by 2010. Currently suppliers produce about 2 billion gallons a year.
Ethanol opponents such as Representative Thomas object that increased ethanol use would raise gas prices in California and other states far from Midwest refiners. The tax subsidies, meanwhile, mean that gas blended with ethanol would bring less tax money into the Federal Highway Trust Fund, which pays for road-building and repairs.
The politics of ethanol are as clear as the alcohol product itself: At least 31 senators - Republican and Democrat - have signed a letter warning Senate leaders they won't vote for the energy bill unless it contains the ethanol provisions.
Ethanol production by government fiat would be defensible only if its use produced clear environmental and energy-saving benefits. So far, the science does not support proponents' claims for the product. Until it does, Congress should not force taxpayers to fund what amounts to yet another multibillion-dollar bailout for agriculture, masquerading as a renewable-energy and environmental measure.