Why is the NYT Attacking Corn-Based Ethanol?

October 2nd, 2007 7:11 PM

Has the New York Times started a journalistic jihad against corn-based ethanol? It certainly looks that way, judging from the spate of critical stories, editorials and blog posts emanating from the NYT in the past month. Consider the following selection of stories from the past few weeks...

Ethanol and the Tortilla Tax, NYT’s “Wheels” blog, September 6:

The spin is that ethanol is good for the environment because it will “reduce our dependence on foreign oil.” But there are mixed opinions over the energy gains from ethanol. In 2006, a study out of the University of Minnesota found that ethanol returns only 25 percent more energy than it takes to produce it — and critics have suggested that the study didn’t calculate all the variables that go into producing it, such as the power to irrigation equipment to water the corn crop being used, the power consumed in making the fertilizers that nourish the crop, the cost of the farm equipment used to harvest it (and the fuel to power that farm equipment).

Recent scientific studies have also found ethanol will make smog - particularly ozone pollution - worse, not better. United States ethanol production increased from 1.6 billion gallons in 2000 to 5 billion gallons in 2006. Ethanol production is now diverting 20 percent of the U.S. corn crop – and that percentage could go as high as 50 percent this year - away from food production. Hence, a so-called “tortilla crisis” has erupted in Mexico, where corn meal and flour (used in tortilla production, among other things) prices have gone up at least 25 percent recently. This “tortilla tax” becomes a public relations challenge: How is it more socially and environmentally responsible to starve the poor to run your S.U.V?

The High Costs of Ethanol, NYT editorial September 19

Backed by the White House, corn-state governors and solid blocks on both sides of Congress’s partisan divide, the politics of biofuels could hardly look sunnier. The economics of the American drive to increase ethanol in the energy supply are more discouraging.

American corn-based ethanol is expensive. And while it can help cut oil imports and provide modest reductions in greenhouse gases compared to conventional gasoline, corn ethanol also carries considerable risks. Even now as Europe and China join the United States in ramping up production, world food prices are rising, threatening misery for the poorest countries.

As Prices Soar, U.S. Food Aid Buys Less, NYT story, September 29

Soaring food prices, driven in part by demand for ethanol made from corn, have helped slash the amount of food aid the government buys to its lowest level in a decade, possibly resulting in more hungry people around the world this year. The United States, the world’s dominant donor, has purchased less than half the amount of food aid this year that it did in 2000, according to new data from the Department of Agriculture. “The people who are starving and have to rely on food aid, they will suffer,” Jean Ziegler, who reports to the United Nations on hunger and food issues, said in an interview this week.

Corn Ethanol: Biofuel or Biofraud?, NYT "Wheels" Blog, September 24

Here’s an interesting bit of scientific research, courtesy of a recent report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a Paris-based global economic think tank, on the difference in greenhouse gas emissions from cars burning gasoline-only fuel and fuels made from various forms of ethanol:

Corn ethanol: 0-3 percent greenhouse gas emission reduction.

Sugar cane ethanol: 50-70 percent reduction.

Cellulosic ethanol: 90-plus percent.

But wait, there’s more:

Which form of ethanol production is the United States government (and its taxpayers) subsidizing? Corn, of course.

Which form of ethanol production does the United States government levy a 53-cents-a-gallon import tariff on? Sugar cane, naturally.

And which form of ethanol production is under-funded, under-researched, and furthest from commercial production? The cleanest choice, obviously.

Ethanol’s Boom Stalling as Glut Depresses Price, NYT story, September 30

NEVADA, Iowa, Sept. 24 — The ethanol boom of recent years — which spurred a frenzy of distillery construction, record corn prices, rising food prices and hopes of a new future for rural America — may be fading. Only last year, farmers here spoke of a biofuel gold rush, and they rejoiced as prices for ethanol and the corn used to produce it set records. But companies and farm cooperatives have built so many distilleries so quickly that the ethanol market is suddenly plagued by a glut, in part because the means to distribute it have not kept pace. The average national ethanol price on the spot market has plunged 30 percent since May, with the decline escalating sharply in the last few weeks. “The end of the ethanol boom is possibly in sight and may already be here,” said Neil E. Harl, an economics professor emeritus at Iowa State University who lectures on ethanol and is a consultant for producers. “This is a dangerous time for people who are making investments.”

While generous government support is expected to keep the output of ethanol fuel growing, the poorly planned overexpansion of the industry raises questions about its ability to fulfill the hopes of President Bush and other policy makers to serve as a serious antidote to the nation’s heavy reliance on foreign oil. And if the bust becomes worse, candidates for president could be put on the spot to pledge even more federal support for the industry, particularly here in Iowa, whose caucus in January is the first contest in the presidential nominating process.

The question is, why has the New York Times, which has long advocated for alternative fuels, gone out of its way recently to cast corn-based ethanol in a negative light?

Certainly, some of the criticisms of corn-based ethanol have merit, but perhaps there's another reason.

The number one corn-based ethanol-producing state is Iowa, and the Bush administration's call for the U.S. to vastly increase its usage of domestically produced ethanol is proving a boon for Iowa corn farmers, Iowa ethanol producers and the Iowa economy.

In fact, a nine-state region of the Midwest is experiencing an economic boost from the ethanol push, reports Reuters. The economies of Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Dakota are all benefiting from a strong farm sector and increased ethanol production, according to Creighton University's Business Conditions Index.

Two of those nine states were among the ten states where the 2004 presidential election results were the closest between George W. Bush and John F. Kerry: Bush won Iowa by a scant 0.67 percent margin. Kerry won Minnesota by just 3.48 percent.

A growing, healthy economy helps the eventual GOP nominee in both states - and, indeed, in all nine states, where a healthy economy will make it difficult for the Democratic nominee to sell its perennial message of economic gloom and doom.