Federal Ethanol Mandates Will Plow Us All Under

Federal Ethanol Mandates Will Plow Us All Under

Fram Smith Letter in the Wall Street Journal
November 05, 2007

Holman W. Jenkins Jr.'s column "Cheap Shot at Toyota," (editorial page, Oct. 24) rightly points out the significant negative consequences of the ethanol "cornrush" spurred on by government mandates, subsidies and import restrictions. One negative effect not mentioned, however, is the vast amount of land needed for biofuel production, particularly corn for ethanol.

In a Competitive Enterprise Institute paper last fall, agricultural economist Dennis Avery noted that about 440 million acres are now used for U.S. crop plantings for food, fiber and feedstock. Mr. Avery said that more than 546 million acres would be needed to replace current gasoline use with corn ethanol because of its low energy intensity.

That's unlikely, of course. But the incentives for farmers to expand their corn acreage are there in the form of mandates and subsidies, which may lead to Conservation Reserve lands being converted to corn and other biomass production, or the use of more marginal land with attendant environmental problems resulting from soil erosion, more fertilizer use, more runoff, plus greater water use and water quality issues.

There is a role for biofuels in the mix of energy sources. But government intervention, through mandates, subsidies and import tariffs, distorts the market by betting taxpayers' money on winners before they've been tested in the marketplace. Ethanol is a case study in the unintended consequences of such a bet.