Farmer Brown Fights Back

To all appearances, green special interests are on a roll.

They have managed to get committed environmentalists appointed to key congressional committees and regulatory positions. They have a president in the White House who agrees on the broad contours of their agenda. They have already won increased fuel economy regulations, restrictions on drilling for oil and gas in the West, and billions of dollars of subsidies for wind and solar power.

But their hot streak may soon run into some trouble. Why? Because they have provoked the most powerful special interest in congressional history: farmers. These are the same folks who once convinced Congress to pay them to grow nothing. Now they are holding hostage legislation to fight so-called climate change.

At issue is ethanol, a fuel distilled from corn that can be used to run cars, but which shouldn't be used to run cars.

Ethanol is more expensive than gasoline, so it increases our pain at the pump. And burning food for fuel increases the demand for food, which makes it more expensive, so ethanol also increases our grocery bills.

That's precisely why farmers love ethanol. It increases the value of their crops. In 2007, the powerful farm lobby convinced Congress to enact a Soviet-style ethanol production quota that forces Americans to use increasing amounts of corn-fuel. As a result, U.S. farmers divert more than 500 billion pounds of corn into the fuel supply every year.

At the time, environmentalists supported ethanol, because they labored under the mistaken notion that it is a "green fuel," which results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions thought to cause climate change.

It's true that combusting ethanol emits less carbon than gasoline, but that doesn't mean much. The ethanol industry is burning so much food for fuel that it has depleted the global grain supply.

Farmers in developing countries are clear-cutting rain forests to make room for arable land to grow crops and meet global demand. According to many scientists, these land-use changes result in massive emissions of greenhouse gases.

Environmentalists campaigned to include these "indirect" emissions in the Environmental Protection Agency's calculation of ethanol's "lifecycle emissions." It's an important distinction, because in 2007, Congress also imposed a requirement that most new ethanol production should produce 20 percent less "lifecycle" greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline.

If such emissions are taken into account, much of the ethanol produced from corn could fail to meet Congress's requirements.

Farm special interests lobbied fiercely against including indirect emissions, arguing that the science was inexact. The environmentalists prevailed. In early May of this year, the EPA announced it would include the controversial emissions in its calculation of ethanol's lifecycle emissions.

Now the farm lobby is hitting back. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Colin Peterson exploded in a hearing in late May, declaring the EPA is going to "kill" the ethanol industry.

Peterson last week told the Hill newspaper that he has lined up 45 members of the House Democratic Caucus to oppose the Waxman-Markey Clean Energy and Security Act, a major climate change mitigation bill that Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants to bring to the floor for a vote by July 4. If Peterson is not bluffing — and he'd have to have the world's best poker face to pull that one off — then he has the votes to kill the bill.

The smart money is on Peterson, who now has all the leverage. That could be bad news because environmentalists will do anything to get a climate law, even if it means they have to embrace ethanol.

Expect Pelosi to cave and permit the farm lobby to write an amendment to the bill that forces the EPA to exclude indirect emissions from its calculations. That would saddle American consumers with a climate bill to raise their utility bills and more ethanol to inflate the price of food and fuel.

That's a lose-lose-lose for everyone except for the special interests and their influential backers in Congress.