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[Washington Babylon]

A Clinton Reader Catches Obama’s Shifting Views on Ethanol


The lavishly-subsidized federal ethanol program is one of the biggest corporate boondoggles of recent times. Eileen O’Connor, a Clinton-supporter based in California, wrote a letter (published below) which charts Obama’s flip-flops on the matter, which look like standard politics-as-usual for a typical Midwestern senator.

I would love to see Senator Obama answer “Six Questions On Corn-Based Ethanol.” By my count, he has changed his position on corn-based ethanol at least four times: from enthusiastically promoting corn-based ethanol as a “No-Brainer” (March 2005) and a way to end “our addiction to foreign oil” (July 2006), to a position that Brazilian sugar-based ethanol is “more efficient” and wind, solar and “clean coal” are also possibilities (March 2008), to a more cautious approach if not a complete reversal, urging a “Need to Rethink” government support for corn-based ethanol early in May 2008 and finally(?) adding “cellulosic ethanol” to the mix later in May 2008.

In March 2005, Obama said boosting corn-based ethanol production was a “no-brainer.” In a July 2006 speech to a Campus Progress rally (as reported in the Harper’s profile), he spent twenty minutes promoting the use of “domestically-produced fuel made from corn” as akin to doing your patriotic duty. http://youtube.com/watch?v=msIpvb8OrhY&feature=related

The Obama Senate website’s point-by-point response to your article includes the following “Fact”:

Senator Obama supports ethanol production because it is a clean, efficient, and domestically produced alternative to oil from the Middle East. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, E85 fuel produces fewer total toxins and lower levels of ozone-forming volatile organic compounds compared to gasoline. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has determined that ethanol production is efficient, creating 1.67 times the energy it takes to produce it. Argonne National Laboratory reports that by switching to ethanol and biomass fuels in our passenger cars and light-duty trucks, drivers can potentially reduce the use of petroleum by at least 68 percent. Blending ethanol with gasoline just at a 10 percent level will translate to savings to consumers of $3.3 billion a year according to independent researchers at LECG (based on 2002 prices).

In May 2006, the Christian Science Monitor published an article that pointed out serious problems with the production of domestic corn-based ethanol, and suggested sugar cane-based fuel from Brazil as an alternative.

In March 2008, Obama agreed, calling corn-based ethanol “transitional,” and jumped on the Brazilian sugar cane bandwagon. On May 4, 2008, he said on “Meet The Press” that it was time to “rethink” corn-based ethanol (on May 6, 2008, 24 Republican Senators, including John McCain, agreed). On May 14, 2008, he parsed his position yet again, calling for support of “cellulosic-based” ethanol.

As recently as April 2008, Senator Obama was still apparently backing a law that would make the manufacture of flex-fuel autos mandatory even though the environmental benefits of “blending” ethanol with gasoline has not been established and many environmentalists think cellulosic-based ethanol is one of the worst ideas on the planet (I don’t know, but I don’t think any of this is a “no-brainer”).

If Obama is so smart, how could he have been so wrong about corn-based ethanol? Could it have been political expediency? Just going along to get along? Saying what he thought people wanted to hear? Corn-producers in his state? Archer Daniels Midland? Winning in Iowa? I cannot help but wonder what his “no-brainer” trust will tell him to say next about ethanol.

I am supporting Hillary Clinton in the primaries. I am a middle-aged white woman so maybe it goes without saying. I should probably also add that I am not a “Republican troll” though I was a Legislative Assistant to a Republican Congressman for a minute way back in the 1980’s (ancient history), one of several Democrats on his staff. I am wary of the love-affair between the media and Obama. I do think Obama is a little quick to call complicated issues (such as our dependence on oil) simple. And I wonder how much of a “change from the old politics” his campaign really represents.

Eileen O’Connor

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