Frank O'Donnell is president of Clean Air Watch, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization aimed at educating the public about clean air and the need for an effective Clean Air Act.
It seems like only yesterday that "biofuels" was all the rage: not only has President Bush relentlessly touted increased ethanol use, but so has House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The idea of increasing use of crops for fuel seemed to have it all — the outward virtues of reducing foreign oil use and helping the climate — and the political reality of letting both parties duke it out for the farm vote.
Not only that, but a successful biofuels mandate worked in Europe.
Or did it?
With Congress still wrestling behind closed doors over energy legislation, people are starting to take a closer look at the issue. And what they're seeing isn't pretty.
Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, has stalled formal Senate and House negotiations on energy in part out of concern than more ethanol use could further drive up animal feed prices.
She's far from the only one concerned. The Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute predicts that more use of biofuels could drive food prices 20-40 percent higher between now and 2020.
"Fuel made from food is a dumb idea, to put it succinctly," observed Ronald Steenblik, research director at the International Institute for Sustainable Development's Global Subsidies Initiative (GSI) in Geneva, Switzerland, who has studied Europe's experience with biofuels.
A follow-up analysis, released this week by my friends with the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force, ought to give everyone pause.
These researchers took an unbiased look at the European Union's effort to ramp up biofuels use. That mandate was driven primarily by farm policy (just like in the U.S., though we pretend otherwise), to create new markets for agricultural and forestry products.
But the Task Force found that the mandate "exacerbated some of the very problems it was designed to solve, driving up food prices, leading to increased deforestation in tropical countries, worsening global warming, and increasing imports of bio-oils."
Though reduced global warming emissions was supposed to be a side benefit of the mandate, the Task Force concluded that it actually led to the draining, clearing and burning of peat lands in Southeast Asia—making Indonesia the third largest source of global warming pollution after the U.S. and China.
Even biofuels produced within Europe didn't produce such great results. New analyses are suggesting that increased use of nitrogen-based fertilizers and deforestation could erase any global warming gains.
This sort of talk seems to have panicked the ethanol lobby, which is accustomed to monopolizing policy discussions about fuel. Consider, for example, the salvos fired last week by Bob Dineen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association.
In rhetoric that seems borrowed from the National Rifle Association defense of assault weapons and former Vice President Spiro Agnew, Dineen assailed "nattering nabobs of negativity" and "well-funded opponents" that he charged "are engaged in a coordinated effort to protect the status quo." Asserting that "All ethanol, indeed all biofuels, are in this fight together," Dineen insinuated that anyone standing in his industry's way was a pawn of the oil industry. (A pretty ludicrous claim, by the way. The Clean Air Task Force, for example, doesn't take oil money.)
If we are going to deal with issues like this sensibly, you'd think we might want to dial down the rhetoric and carefully consider the facts. For example, that was the intention of a letter sent this week to congressional leaders from environmental and health groups, led by the American Lung Association (and including Clean Air Watch).
No one in this group voiced opposition to increased use of ethanol, but we do want to make sure the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has adequate authority to deal with unwanted possible consequences - such as more air pollution. The Clean Air Task Force also advocates the very sensible position of making sure we know as much as possible about the net impacts of making various sorts of biofuels.
But the latter recommendation may be too rational. For example, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., has reacted to the congressional energy bill delay by joining with Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, to press for a stand-alone bill calling for more ethanol in gasoline, the vast majority of it from corn.
After all, it is only a few months until the Iowa Caucuses.