Some livestock farmers in the United States are worried that a rush to ethanol production will leave too little corn to feed their animals. If they want help from their representatives in Washington, they might as well be talking to a wall.
There is an ethanol juggernaut moving through the Congress that will call for a sevenfold increase in biofuels production, almost all as ethanol, during the next 15 years. Presidential primaries, anger over gasoline prices and global warming make ethanol a potent political issue for both parties.
Just two years ago Congress directed that oil refiners more than double their use of corn-produced ethanol as a gasoline additive to 7.5 billion gallons (6.25 billion Imperial gallons) a year. Lawmakers' sights are now set on several times that amount.
A bill expected to win bipartisan approval Wednesday from the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee would require 36 billion gallons (30 billion Imperial gallons) of ethanol be used annually by 2022, including 20 billion gallons (16.7 billion Imperial gallons) made from feedstock other than corn _ such as switch grasses, wood chips, corn stems and leaves.
At the same time, lawmakers are considering everything from loan guarantees and tax breaks for research and building cellulosic ethanol plants to making oil companies put ethanol pumps at retail service stations. They're looking to automakers to fine-tune cars and reduce the efficiency loss when using gasoline blends with higher percentages of ethanol.
The leader of the Senate's Democratic majority, Harry Reid, wants an ethanol package ready by Memorial Day for a Senate vote shortly afterward. A parallel track has another group of senators assembling a package of pro-ethanol tax incentives.
In the House of Representatives, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, also a Democrat, has told her committee chairmen she also wants an "energy security" package with ethanol as its linchpin ready for a floor vote this summer.
A confluence of issues is behind the rush for ethanol: $3 a gallon gasoline, demand for greater energy security, concern over relying on oil imports from politically volatile regions, and growing worries about carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, the principal "greenhouse" gas linked to global warming.
There is hardly a lawmaker or presidential aspirant who has not signed onto some sort of ethanol promotion.
"We counted 145 bills that deal with ethanol or renewable fuels in some capacity," says Matt Hartwig, a spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Association, which represents the ethanol industry.
The bill before the Senate Energy Committee, in addition to setting aggressive ethanol production increases, would provide $250 million (euro183.75 million) for each of six renewable fuels plants. Co-written by the panel's Democratic chairman and senior Republican, respectively New Mexico Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Pete Domenici, it also specifies a 50 percent increase in government research on producing ethanol from noncorn feedstocks.
President George W. Bush's plan to reduce gasoline consumption by 20 percent by 2017 also relies on developing noncorn ethanol. It is the same product as corn-based ethanol, but scientists have found it harder to develop the enzymes needed to economically convert it to a fuel.
Bingaman's bill would require a percentage of ethanol on the market to be cellulosic by 2016. By 2022, at least 20 billion gallons (16.7 billion Imperial gallons) of the total 36 billion gallons (30 billion Imperial gallons) a year would have to be cellulosic ethanol.
Livestock farmers like Joy Philippi, a hog farmer who raised her objections at a recent Senate hearing, also are pushing for more research into cellulosic ethanol, hoping to take pressure off the corn markets.
"Our agricultural sector has demonstrated an impressive capability to supply renewable fuels," says Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, a longtime ethanol cheerleader, who once drank some of the fuel, which is essentially alcohol, to demonstrate it is not harmful.
Automakers also have fanned the ethanol flames by promoting _ at the White House, at the Capitol and to the media _ their push to put more "flex-fuel" vehicles on the road that can run on either gasoline or an 85 percent blend of ethanol, known as E-85.
Major manufacturers have pledged to double production of such vehicles to 2 million a year over the next three years.
The oil industry says it supports expanded use of ethanol but wants to keep it as a blend with gasoline and not as a major expansion of E-85. The oil industry has been lobbying against proposals that would require the installation of pumps that carry E-85 fuel.
"We support more ethanol in the fuel supply," Peter J. Robertson, vice chairman of Chevron Corp., said in an interview. With a 10 percent ethanol blend, gasoline refiners can use all the ethanol that corn farmers can produce, he said.
The ethanol industry estimates that with new efficiencies corn likely can supply up to 14 billion gallons (11.7 Imperial gallons) a year before cutting into food supplies. Motorists today buy about 140 billion gallons (116.6 Imperial gallons) of gasoline a year.
Ethanol has long benefited from a $.51 per gallon tax break, so government support for it has been a staple of politics in farm states. Bush repeatedly has promoted expanded ethanol use as a central part of his energy policy and has sent to Congress a proposal mandating the use of 35 billion gallons (29.1 Imperial gallons) a year of "alternative" fuels, mostly ethanol, by 2017.