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Thursday, Jan. 4, 2007 03:19 pm

Candidates of the corn

Where they stand on ethanol can make or break them — and that’s a shame

Untitled Document The Midwest is where it’s at — for corn and politics. Five Midwestern states — Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Ohio, and Indiana — account for half of the nation’s corn production and more than 40 percent of all ethanol-processing facilities.
Midwestern states are also key in national politics: In almost every presidential election since 1892, voters in Missouri and Ohio have picked the winner, and the influential Iowa caucuses, the first in the nation, give an early indication of which candidates are likely to win their parties’ nominations.
Where there’s corn, politicians see opportunity. Although a candidate’s position on a cereal grain won’t on its own determine who becomes the nation’s 44th president, with each passing election cycle ethanol, which today is made mostly from corn, could become a bellwether issue in the 2008 presidential race. In late December, a survey conducted by Research 2000, one of several widely tracked nationwide polling firms, showed U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., considered the Democratic front-runner, trailing U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former North Carolina senator John Edwards by double digits in Iowa.
One possible explanation for Clinton’s poor showing in the Hawkeye State is the fact that she was one of 26 senators to vote against last year’s energy bill, which mandated that 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol be added to the nation’s fuel supply by 2012. Nor is Clinton laying much groundwork for a run in Iowa, the top producer of both corn and ethanol. Although he’s currently leading the Republican herd, U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a longtime fervent opponent of ethanol, skipped Iowa’s 2000 caucus altogether. Of the zillion-or-so people still kicking around the idea of running for president, Obama has been the most loyal ethanol supporter. During his 2004 Senate campaign, Obama said he wanted to double U.S. ethanol production by 2012. Last year he attached an amendment to the federal highway bill to give $30,000 in tax credits to gas stations that install E85 fuel pumps. He even drives a flexible-fuel SUV that can run on regular gas or blended E85. How else could a black man from the South Side of Chicago expect to win over a bunch of corn farmers? And you’d better believe that Clinton, McCain, and the rest are paying attention. Now that developers have announced plans to build a 110 million-gallon ethanol-processing plant in her home state, in downtown Buffalo, this year, Clinton has relaxed her opposition to ethanol. Addressing the National Press Club this summer, Clinton said that corn-based ethanol was still “a long way from helping us deal with our gas problems” and proposed increased funding for research of cellulosic ethanol, which is made from fibers in wood, wheat, grass, and, yes, cornstalks. McCain, too, seems to have changed his position. The Arizona Republican has for years, like many other ethanol critics, dismissed the fuel as corporate welfare for such companies as Decatur-based Archer Daniels Midland. “Ethanol is a product that would not exist if Congress didn’t create an artificial market for it. No one would be willing to buy it,” McCain said in 2003. But now McCain is calling for more study of and investment in ethanol technologies, indicating, observers say, that he’s softening his stance. The now-crowded list of would-be presidential contenders will shrink rapidly in the coming months. The weakest Democratic candidates will soon have to come to terms with the reality of Obama’s star appeal and Clinton’s war chest. With Obama neck-and-neck with Clinton but clearly gaining momentum, the rest of the Democratic field should be careful not to follow Obama off any cliffs. Pro-ethanol scientists cite a positive, albeit razor-thin, net energy gain. Meanwhile, detractors say just the opposite, arguing that every unit of energy expended in the production of the stuff should also be factored into the equation. Granted, ethanol — which often comes up in homeland-security discussions as an alternative to Middle Eastern petroleum — is a winning issue here in the Midwest. But the question of whether ethanol is a winning formula as a fuel, as a solution to our energy crisis, has yet to be resolved and probably won’t be anytime soon.

Contact RL Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com
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