When All Else Fails

Level the Playing Field? Uh, Never Mind.

by Sheila Karpf, EWG

When the corn ethanol lobby is fighting to defend its trifecta of government subsidies, it routinely rolls out its favorite “level playing field” talking point.

As Growth Energy CEO Tom Buis put it recently,

It is inequitable to have a debate about tax policy for one energy source – homegrown renewable fuels – without having that same debate about tax breaks for other competitive energy sources, including oil and gas.

We at the Environmental Working Group couldn’t agree more. But what did ethanol’s leading defenders in the Senate actually do when were they given the chance to level that playing field last week. Many of them kept their feet firmly planted on the status quo, voting against a proposal to eliminate billions in subsidies to big oil.

And what did the corn ethanol lobbying groups have to say?

Not a word.

Apparently, the best way to maintain ethanol subsidies is to vote to maintain oil subsidies. And that’s what happened. Despite gaining support from a slim majority in the Senate, the Close Big Oil Tax Loopholes Act (S. 940) died in a procedural vote on a mostly party-line tally of 52-48. (You haven’t forgotten that it takes 60 votes to get anything done in the Senate these days, have you?)

That leaves us with the same sad excuse for a national energy policy as we had before.

As EWGs Craig Cox wrote in a recent Des Moines Register editorial, “Subsidizing ethanol makes no more sense than subsidizing oil companies.”

At that time, the corn ethanol industry had plenty to say, with Renewable Fuels Association president Bob Dinneen responding to Cox by writing:

While giving lip service to wanting to reduce America’s dependence on oil, environmental activists like those at the Environmental Working Group stand in the way of virtually every effort to reduce our addiction to imported oil.

EWG has, however, called for eliminating oil subsidies and tax breaks in its recent report opposing the corn ethanol industry’s push for a set of new infrastructure subsidies – which would add yet another leg to its triad of American taxpayer-funded supports.

After all, how can corn ethanol possibly loosen the dastardly grip of subsidized oil without massive taxpayer handouts and mandates all its own?

The senators who refused to say no to big oil while historically supporting corn ethanol subsidies and decrying our reliance on foreign oil included one Democrat and eleven Republicans:

1.  Ben Nelson (D-Neb.)

2.  Mike Johanns (R-Neb.)

3.  Roy Blunt (R-Mo.)

4.  Daniel Coats (R-Ind.)

5.  Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa)

6.  John Hoeven (R-N.D.)

7.  Mark Kirk (R-Ill.)

8.  Richard Lugar (R-Ind.)

9.  Jerry Moran (R-Kan.)

10.    Rob Portman (R-Ohio)

11.    Pat Roberts (R-Kan.)

12.    John Thune (R-S.D.)

We commend the other 49 Democrats, two Republicans and one Independent who voted to end wasteful taxpayer supports for the oil and gas industry, and we look forward to the expected vote later this year on a similar handout – the ethanol blender’s tax credit. That’s just one of the three federal programs that prop up the ethanol industry. As Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said just before Preakness weekend, “Ethanol is the only industry that benefits from a triple crown of government intervention.”

Using scarce taxpayer funds to subsidize polluters and satisfy entrenched political interests makes no sense, especially as our country faces a ballooning deficit and record national debt. Future generations deserve better. A prime opportunity to change course is now.