Al Gore’s Flip-flop on Ethanol, He Had it Right the First Time

Posted on: November 22, 2010 in Agriculture, Ethanol, Production

Now he tells us: Al Gore was for grain ethanol before he was against it.

Speaking at a green energy business conference in Athens, the former vice president declared “it is not good policy to have subsidies for (U.S.) first-generation ethanol.” Grain ethanol is “a mistake,” Gore said, because its energy conversion ratios are very small, and it contributes to the food price crisis. Explaining his earlier support for grain ethanol, Gore said he had “paid particular attention to the farmers in my home state of Tennessee, and I had a particular fondness for farmers in the state of Iowa because I was about to run for President.” 

I’ll take Gore’s word for his own motivations. But he’s wrong on every other count. As the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported in 2008, ethanol produces about 2.3 BTU of energy for every 1 BTU of inputs. That’s a big improvement from 2000 and before, when Gore supported ethanol. In fact, ethanol production keeps becoming more efficient: Over the five years preceding 2009, there was a 27% decrease in consumptive water use, a 22% reduction in fossil energy use, and a 7% increase in the amount of ethanol produced per bushel of grain.

Nor does ethanol production compete with the food supply. Using virtually the same acres as two generations ago, America’s corn farmers produced the highest corn crop on record in 2009 – 13.2 billion bushels. About 4.2 billion bushels were used to produce a record 11.75 billion gallons of ethanol and 33 million metric tons of feed.

While Gore said he supports cellulosic (non-grain) ethanol, he should heed President Obama’s statement that the “transition to [the next generation] will be successful only if the first-generation biofuels industry remains viable in the near term.” First-generation ethanol creates the companies, the skilled workforce, the markets and the infrastructure that next-generation ethanol requires.

Finally, Gore bemoans “the lobbies that keep it [ethanol] going.” What about Big Oil lobbying for ever-more costly and risky offshore drilling?

Gore should stop apologizing for having supported ethanol. He had it right the first time.

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