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Thursday, Aug. 25, 2005 07:31 pm

Barack and a hard place

On which side of the ethanol issue should a progressive Midwestern politician be?

U.S. Sen. Barack Obama

When U.S. Sen. Barack Obama filled the tank of his flexible-fuel sport-utility vehicle with E85 at a Decatur gas station last week, farmers, ethanol producers, and even oil companies made money.

Plus, the senator saved himself $10.92.

Obama, who was holding a series of town-hall meetings in downstate Illinois to talk about education, health care, and other issues, made a special point of promoting ethanol and flex-fuel vehicles at every opportunity, including his made-for-TV stop in Decatur. Ethanol got a major boost in the most recent federal energy legislation, which Obama supported.

Proponents such as the junior senator say that E85, which consists of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, reduces greenhouse-gas emissions, costs less per gallon than gas, and reduces America’s dependence on foreign oil.

Furthermore, supporters argue, the use of flexible-fuel cars will save Americans even more money at the pump. These vehicles, which can run on either E85 or gasoline, are comparable to conventional vehicles price-wise and come in sizes ranging from the Ford Taurus to the Chevy Suburban.

The energy bill, pushed by the Republican leadership with support from key Democrats, continues the federal government’s subsidies to ethanol producers and forces oil companies to add 3.5 million more gallons of the corn-based fuel to its gasoline by 2012. The bill’s passage is seen as a windfall for corn farmers and ethanol producers such as Decatur-based Archer Daniels Midland and A.E. Staley.

Those who support ethanol, which is practically everybody in the corn-growing Midwest, do so because it’s good for local farmers and local economies.

Its major critics, who include environmental groups and left-leaning politicians such as U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., argue that ethanol is too heavily subsidized by the federal government, burdens taxpayers, and amounts to corporate welfare.

Representing constituents who stand to benefit from ethanol but opposed by powerful members of the party, liberal senators from top corn-producing states find themselves in something of a dilemma.

Or so it seems: So far, Democrats Obama and Dick Durbin of Illinois, Evan Bayh of Indiana, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Mark Dayton of Minnesota have sided with the farmers and agribusiness companies of their home states.

“It makes sense for us to try to grow our own fuel, here in places like central Illinois, as opposed to importing Middle Eastern oil,” Obama says.

He goes on: “Part of the problem is, there is a only a handful of E85 pumps around the state and people are not using E85.”

Skeptics assert that once the planting, cultivation, and harvest of corn have been taken into account, plus the fossil fuels spent processing the crop into gasohol, ethanol actually costs more than gasoline.

A study by scientists at Cornell University and the University of California at Berkeley, released this summer, found that the production of ethanol uses up more energy than the use of ethanol saves. The controversial study was widely criticized by corn-state researchers and corn-grower lobbyists.

Although Obama acknowledges that ethanol is not perfect, he adds that energy will be one of the issues that he is “still going to be working on over the next few years.”

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