Is Obama a Shill for the Ethanol Lobby?

by Benjamin Jones on June 30, 2008

Obama ethanol

It may not be surprising that any politician from Illinois, the United States’ second largest corn-producing state, supports ethanol, but in Senator Obama’s case, this does come as a bit of a shock. I don’t like to inject EcoModder into political discussions very often, but when it comes down to our possible future president and his views on ethanol as a future fuel source, it’s important that we all be informed.

The reason I say that I am a little shocked by Obama’s support of ethanol  is that, however you feel about the man, you have to admit he is usually aware of the popular opinion held by those considered to be experts of whatever field. Those experts, at least the ones concerned with the economy and the environment, tend to believe that corn-based ethanol production isn’t exactly a winner. The main supporters of corn-based ethanol are, after all, farm lobbyists. One just doesn’t expect Obama, with his strong stances on lobbyists and special interests, to be one to buy into the mega-farm corn lobbying.

Here’s what the NYT has to say on that count:

Mr. Obama is running as a reformer who is seeking to reduce the influence of special interests. But like any other politician, he has powerful constituencies that help shape his views. And when it comes to domestic ethanol, almost all of which is made from corn, he also has advisers and prominent supporters with close ties to the industry at a time when energy policy is a point of sharp contrast between the parties and their presidential candidates.

As far as policy is concerned, Obama’s support for ethanol is based primarily on foreign policy and security concerns, not environmental ones. Supporting ethanol, he believes, is a way to divest money and interest from foreign and often hostile powers. With that money staying home not only will the US have greater energy independence, but will send less of its money abroad.

Senator McCain, on the other hand, is a staunch supporter of free trade and wants to end tariffs on foriegn ethanol as well as end subsidies to the US ethanol industry. Sure, McCain’s recent plan to secure $300 million for EV batteries doesn’t exactly smack of free trade, but he certainly doesn’t seem to believe in corn ethanol as a solution to the brewing energy crisis.

You can’t fault McCain for being inconsistent on ethanol, at least, because it seems he’s opposed it since longer than most of us knew about it, dating back to his failed 2000 primary election bid.

So where does this leave voters, people interested in the environment, economics, and the future of transportation in the US? While I have no interest in telling you who to vote for, it’s clear that even though McCain and Obama share the goal of energy independence and greenhouse gas reductions, they intend to go about it in very different ways. It is, in my view, not very likely that either candidate will be changing their opinions anytime soon.

While Obama will continue to support government intervention and ethanol, and McCain the opposite, it is also true that either individual, as President, will need to make compromises on their positions in order to create effective policy. It is here that all citizens, regardless of political affiliation, have the ability to influence the policy makers. My advice: vote for who you like and support the views you find important, because it doesn’t have to end at the ballot box.

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Image: Joe Crimmings

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1 Mohr July 1, 2008 at 4:41 am

Typo: Senator Obama is from Illinois, not Indiana.

2 n8thegr8 July 1, 2008 at 5:10 am

Better than a shill for offshore drilling I say…

3 Greenpointer July 1, 2008 at 6:31 am

It’s nearly impossible for me to put any faith in the government now that we’ve all suffered so much negligence and abuse these past 8 years. Rumblings of these types of potentially harmful fuel overhaul projects scares me and makes me even less hopeful that the new President will even begin to make a dent in this tangled contradiction of a country. Not to bum everyone out today but do you think America is already too far gone for one man to lift us out of this mess?

4 Brian July 1, 2008 at 8:54 am

You might find that Sen. Obama is from Illinois, not Indiana.

Your primary thesis is intriguing none the less. His relationship with ADM and former Sen. Daschle from South Dakota bear some scrutiny.


5 al July 1, 2008 at 9:31 am

which oil company do you work for?

6 Gary July 1, 2008 at 8:18 pm

Please look up David Blume and watch a video or two with him. He is a long time ethanol advocate. An advocate of small scale decentralized ethanol production that fits into traditional sustainable farming, sewage treatment in cities, and countless other sources. There is diffinately a smear campaign going on by big oil and other powers that don’t want decentralized fuel production. Just take a look and be your own judge. Gary

7 Niall July 2, 2008 at 12:28 am

I wouldn’t be too enthusiastic about ethanol as a fuel. We tried that in europe and it ended up with Farmers growing crops for Biodiesel and not for food. Pasta crisis!

Aren’t you concerned that diverting corn harvests away from food production will drive up the cost of the most basic food stuffs.

8 Frank July 2, 2008 at 5:43 am

Obama supports cellulosic ethanol production from corn stocks, cobs, and any other left over plant biomass. This is critically different than producing ethanol from corn kernels as it has the potential for a >15:1 return on energy output. Almost everyone supports cellulosic ethanol production, both economists and environmentalists.

9 Jim July 2, 2008 at 7:51 am

I hope he is a shill for ethanol. Corn ethanol is only a transition ethanol. Cattails and sweet sorghum are much better. Industrial Hemp is even better.
5% of unusable farmland could meet our transport needs with Industrial Hemp. Henry Ford wanted our cars to run on ethanol John d Rockefeller had other ideas. He gave the equivalent of 1bil to the Womens Temperance League to outlaw ethanol production. Hence our dependence now on oil.
Learn here

10 Ryan July 2, 2008 at 9:00 am

Maybe Obama believes ethanol is actually a solution to the problem, much like the people who use sugar cane ethanol in Brazil. Corn ethanol is not as efficient to use as sugarcane ethanol, but when the US is only using 2% of its fuel based on it, why can’t we look to the alternative? It’s a lot cheaper than bringing in oil from the Middle East.

The Brazilians are in fact already using 40% of their fuel based on ethanol. ( ) And while I cannot get back to the exact source, they simply want to help us develop ethanol production so that a market for ethanol is created. They really don’t care about giving us their fuel anymore.

11 JD July 2, 2008 at 9:12 am

Here’s one thing you might want to keep in mind. All of the studies attacking corn-based ethanol just happen to be funded by oil companies. The independent studies show corn-ethanol as a net gain, although not as effective as cane ethanol. Moreover, supporting corn ethanol as a transitional measure establishes the infrastructure needed for biofuels. So, while it’s not perfect, it actually makes sense for right now.

12 joe July 2, 2008 at 9:25 am

1. You got his state wrong and thus your entire thesis that he’s from the “2nd largest corn producer” is also wrong”.
2. Obama is for alternative energy of all types that will prevent us from making our enemies rich which you never mention.
3. Obama is for “cellulosic” ethanol and in the future converting our trash into ethanol. He doesn’t say “Corn” ethanol. But you fail to make that distinction.
4. You also don’t realize that America needs every non-oil based energy source we can get so we don’t ever have to repeat $4 and potential $8 gasoline ever again. It is only Obama who will wean us off oil and protect American by stopping the giving of Trillions to the middle east for oil.

13 Gabe July 2, 2008 at 11:54 am

Interesting discussion! I would like to throw in my two cents as an engineer (with no affiliation to any oil companies, etc.).

1. Jumping to complain about people’s affiliations (with lobbyists, oil companies, etc, while pertinent to review, clouds the issues. It doesn’t disprove any claims; it merely calls the motivation for the claims to question. If you want to argue against them, try attacking the evidence, not the person signing the paycheck. Besides, who signs the paychecks of environmental lobbyists? Do you want to discredit them too?

2. While global warming is happening, and human released CO2 is part of the increase in global CO2 levels, having read many scientific papers on the topic, and having analyzed the data myself, I am an independent skeptic as to whether (a) CO2 causes global warming, and (b) humans are the cause of increased CO2. Historical records indicate that when temperature goes up, CO2 goes up a short while later. I don’t have evidence to claim this isn’t happening, but the cause/effect relationship is difficult to distinguish based on the existing evidence – skeptics should not be dismissed. Policy decisions to eliminate our biggest industrial byproduct should be based on firm evidence, more firm than is currently published. If you understand how scientific modeling works, you’ll understand the challenges when working with a system as large as global climate – there’s little basis for testing the model, since it’s a whole planet and over such a long period of time.

3. It is indisputable that our dependence on foreign oil is expensive for consumers, affects the quality of life in oil-rich countries, and has helped inspire substantial numbers of military conflicts (the first gulf war being a direct example – that’s why Iraq invaded Kuwait). This is an unambiguous motivation to try to find alternatives, and it happens to be inline with the anti-CO2-emission agenda. Therefore, the environmental debate is trumped by a clear point that agrees with anti-CO2-emission.

4. Nobody is saying that ethanol will only come from corn. That’s the current main technology. The current technology lacks efficiency, but it is constantly improving. Beyond that, look for switchgrass based ethanol and many other fuels that come more from biomass in the near future. There will be hurdles, but imagine the ability to eliminate debates about oil-based foreign policy, polluting oil wells, and excessive CO2 emission. Could be great!

14 Jim July 2, 2008 at 12:23 pm
15 Benjamin Jones July 2, 2008 at 4:01 pm

Thanks to those who corrected my Illinois/Indiana mistake. Bad on my part, 🙂

To those who wish to attack me for “slandering” Obama or ethanol, I think you should consider several things. While cellulosic ethanol does show promise, do you see it as a final solution or as another transistion stage? How many transistion stages do we need to go through? How much industry and infrastructure will be built around these transistions, and how many decades will they last? Most of all, consider the comparative advantage of spending billions on ethanol and building that industry compared to spending that same money on research for battery electric vehicles.

Electric vehicles are not only more efficient than internal combustion engines, but wall sockets are in every home and are easy to add to parking spots on the street and in lots. While it’s true that the grid would have to be beefed up for widespread use, the grid in many parts of the use is already buckling under increased demand, and much of the EV use would come during off peak. Compare this to the prospect of continued production of ethanol and maintenance of things like gas stations, which there are many of.

I don’t hate ethanol, but, like hydrogen, I think that the money being invested in it is inappropriate considering the other, better solutions currently on the table. Therefore, I think it’s good to understand not Obama’s position, but possibly why he takes this position. As wel come into the general election and both candidates float closers towards the middle, we should look beyond positions and towards motivations. There are plenty of people would pick a candidate and then believe anything he or she says as some sort of divine proclamation, without thinking more closely. I’m not trying to advocate positions, but examination of the issues.

Thank you all for the comments.

16 Joshua Key July 13, 2008 at 3:56 pm

Obama is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

The U.S. Farm Industry wants protection from outside competition. That’s what it means for Obama to subsidize the corn industry. That’s why they tax Brazilian farmer .54 cents a gallon for superior, sugar-based ethanol.

This puts developing world farmers off their lands, out of their livelihoods. For every ton of U.S. corn we subsidize, we push 2 Mexicans off his farm. That’s a reality. Obama helps the rich corporate farms at the expense of the developing countries. Maybe you don’t care about that, but I do.

17 brian krushell December 11, 2008 at 10:53 pm

Why is everyone talking about corn and sugar cane ethanol. There is so much wetlands or unusable land in the U.S. that can be utilized to grow cattails. Cattails produce more ethanol than corn or potatoes, which takes no land away from food crops. Thanks.

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