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Forget ethanol; save corn for bourbon
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3/1/2007

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As a bourbon drinker and grandson of a moonshiner, I naturally perk up when talk turns to distilling corn.

Grandpa cooked corn into sour mash whiskey in a process nearly identical to the one used today to produce ethanol.

But while the feds chased Old Pap up hills and down hollers to stop him from running off a batch or two of home brew, the government this year will provide more than $7 billion in subsidies to encourage a massive expansion of ethanol production.

I think Jim Beam could do more good with that corn and money than the purveyors of E-85.

Ethanol is a fraud of an alternative fuel.

It's too costly to make. It can't be shipped economically. It offers only a minimal impact on the greenhouse gasses linked to global warming, while creating other types of dangerous air and water pollution. And it won't break our addiction to foreign oil. Even if every available acre of crop land in the United States were converted to growing corn, we'd still be about 20 percent short of what is needed for ethanol to replace gasoline. Ethanol just ain't going to happen here.

But don't bother trying to explain that to the politicians. They're too busy conning themselves and voters that spending truckloads of tax dollars to create an ethanol industry will free us from the oil sheiks and break the earth's rising fever. Ethanol bites consumers

If this were nothing more than a waste of taxpayer money, I'd remain indifferent. Taxpayer money gets wasted by the billions every day, and we still manage to get up in the morning.

But as often happens when politicians meddle in markets, the anointment of ethanol will cost consumers in the pocketbook. Corn prices shot up 55 percent last fall and are expected to double this year as ethanol plants gobble up more of the crop.

If you want to know how that affects you, take a look at the ingredients label on almost anything in your food pantry. Chances are you'll find corn syrup or another corn derivative on the list.

Already, riots have broken out in Mexico to protest the soaring price of tortillas. Corn flakes, too, cost more.

The weekly grocery bill will go up in equal measure with the output of ethanol.

If you're a corn farmer, you're loving this. Speculators have made corn ground hotter than Manhattan lofts.

But if you're a beef or dairy farmer, things aren't so swell. With more of the corn crop diverted for ethanol production, the cost of feed is climbing. As is the price of beef and pork.

The corn boom inevitably will be followed by a corn bust when ethanol is exposed for its impracticality.

Taxpayers will see their "investment" in ethanol infrastructure evaporate.

Bourbon drinkers, however, may cash in. Something will have to be done with the glut of ethanol refineries.

Converting them to giant stills to make corn liquor would be a fine way to rescue this boondoggle from total ruin.

Nolan Finley is editorial page editor of The News. Reach him at nfinley@detnews.com or (313) 222-2064. Read his daily blog at forums.detnews.com/blogs/, and watch him at 8:30 p.m. Fridays on "Am I Right?" on Detroit Public TV, Channel 56.

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