Shuck and Jive

How industry and politicians are harvesting ethanol for all it's worth

| Utne Reader May / June 2007

  • Ethanol

    illustration by Ellyn Lusis

  • Ethanol

Behind the newly constructed Lincolnway Energy ethanol plant in Nevada, Iowa, harvested cornfields stretch to where brown meets blue at the horizon. While wind blows across the plains, bright sunlight catches the silver of tall silos full of liquid fuel made from corn.

Politicians tout this picturesque scene as the key to energy independence and small-town economic revival. Yet the veneer on this portrait of Midwestern know-how and environmental progress has started to crack. There is, after all, another part of the picture: the long cargo train that delivers the 275 tons of coal Lincolnway needs each day to generate power.

Though the truth about corn-based ethanol -- that it is, in fact, an inefficient way to produce energy -- is slowly trickling out, the great green hope has yet to be dashed in mainstream discourse. And with ethanol and the public still in their honeymoon phase, politicians and powerful lobbyists are mining the gilded promise of ethanol for political gold: votes and subsidies.

In the 2004 and 2006 election cycles, the National Corn Growers Association (a nonprofit that represents more than 300,000 farmers), the Renewable Fuels Association (a trade group), and the handful of companies building ethanol refineries gave a combined $1.2 million to political candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks political donations. Federal legislators from Illinois and Iowa received the most funds.

As for money spent on lobbying -- as opposed to funds given to elect legislators -- the public interest watchdog group Public Citizen says the figures are grossly underreported by the ethanol industry. For example, until Public Citizen filed a complaint last summer with Congress, agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM), which controls 22 percent of the ethanol market, had stated that it did no federal lobbying at all. By the time ADM filed a spending report in February, it had registered a $300,000 lobbying tab in the six months between its report and Public Citizen's complaint.

Similarly, though the Renewable Fuels Association reports spending $500,000 on lobbyists from 2000 to 2005, lobbying firms reported that the trade group paid them $1.7 million in the same time frame.

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