Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., are about as opposite politically as two people can be. Nonetheless, last week they joined forces to introduce a bill to repeal the federal requirement to blend corn ethanol into gasoline.
There's something in the ethanol mandate for almost everyone -- but corn farmers -- not to like. Supporters of the mandate meant well, but the law of unintended consequences has created an odd assortment of anti-ethanol bedfellows.
Environmentalists have turned on corn ethanol. It doesn't reduce greenhouse gases, they now say, and increased corn production has pumped more fertilizer into the water supply. Environmental Working Group Vice President Scott Faber told Congress that the corn ethanol Renewable Fuel Standard "is polluting America's air and water, contributing to climate change, hurting consumers and hindering the development of cleaner biofuels."
Big Oil doesn't like the ethanol standard. Federal automobile fuel-efficiency regulations have put a dent in the demand for gasoline. Oil companies already buy enough ethanol to blend 10 percent of it into gasoline; they are up against a "blend wall" -- they have to buy more ethanol than they can use.
Big Food doesn't like the ethanol mandate; diverting roughly 44 percent of the corn supply to gas tanks has driven up the cost of livestock feed and people food. Price-Waterhouse-Coopers predicts the current renewable fuel standards will increase costs to chain restaurants by up to $3.1 billion per year.
Anti-poverty activists oppose the ethanol standard because of its effect on food prices and food supply. Oxfam America charges that the 2007 regulation has resulted in a 15 percent reduction in global corn supplies.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute and Taxpayers for Common Sense support the Feinstein-Coburn Corn Ethanol Mandate Elimination Act of 2013.
According to conventional political wisdom, the Iowa presidential caucus has given ethanol an outsized advantage inside Washington. But the Environmental Working Group's Faber believes that theory doesn't hold water anymore. Former GOP nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney both opposed the scheme.
While voters in the Hawkeye State may support the Renewable Fuel Standard, Faber added, "corn ethanol is unbelievably unpopular" in three key primary states. In New Hampshire, voters blame it for engine damage. In South Carolina, it drives up the cost of raising chickens. There's "not a lot of corn grown in Nevada," but there is livestock.
In response to the growing resentment of the program, the EPA has proposed reducing the Renewable Fuel Standard's biofuels requirement in 2014. That's too little, too late. Feinstein predicts that under the proposed EPA regulations, gasoline prices still would rise, and California dairy farms still would struggle to stay in business.
Maybe there was a time when Washington's ethanol policies seemed smart and green. Now they carry the stench of failed ranches, high food prices and unnecessary environmental damage. So Congress should clean up after its mistake -- and quickly.