NY Times wrongly framed ethanol debate as partisan dispute


A New York Times article on renewable energy misrepresented the division over the required use of ethanol as partisan, when, in fact, it is driven more by regional concerns than party affiliation.

In a February 22 New York Times report on President Bush's acknowledgement during his renewable energy tour that the government had sent "mixed signals" to the National Renewal Energy Lab in Colorado, reporter Elisabeth Bumiller misrepresented as party-line the political divisions over government support for ethanol use. In fact, support and opposition to ethanol subsidies can be found among both Democrats and Republicans.

According to the Energy Department, ethanol is an alcohol-based fuel additive -- made from "biological feedstocks that contain appreciable amounts of sugar" such as corn, sugar beets, and sugar cane -- that enhances the efficiency of petroleum-based fuels. Many lawmakers from states with significant agricultural industries have supported its use, but its value is still in dispute, as some scientists claim that the production of ethanol consumes more energy than it saves as a fuel additive. Bumiller wrote, "Members of both parties generally praise the president's proposals," adding, "although Democrats say they are not adequate to address the nation's dependence on oil and Republicans are skeptical about the practicality of alternative fuels like ethanol, which is made from corn or plant fibers." In fact, the debate surrounding ethanol, whose major components are grown in agricultural states, is driven more by regional concerns than party affiliation.

As the Los Angeles Times noted in a June 16, 2005, article (subscription only) about a Senate vote to mandate increased use of ethanol by 2012, "The provision adopted by the Senate on Wednesday was eagerly sought by Democratic and Republican farm-state lawmakers, underscoring that energy policy that includes ethanol mandates is often driven by regional politics rather than party affiliation." The article quoted Sen. John Thune -- a Republican from South Dakota, which has the United States' fourth-greatest ethanol production capacity -- saying, "The Senate is poised to make ethanol a cornerstone of America's energy policy." The opposition was bipartisan as well. Sen. Charles Schumer -- a Democrat from New York, who opposed the provision -- said, "There is no sound public policy reason for mandating the use of ethanol -- other than the political might of the ethanol lobby." In addition, the article noted that Sen. Barbara Boxer -- a Democrat from California -- also voted against the mandate.

A breakdown of the June 14, 2005, Senate vote on ethanol illustrates Bumiller's mischaracterization of the political divide on government support for ethanol. A review of votes by state shows that in fact Republican senators from agricultural states, such as Jeff Sessions (AL), Richard C Shelby (AL), Wayne Allard (CO), Saxby Chambliss (GA), Charles Grassley (IA), Richard Lugar (IN), Sam Brownback (KS), Pat Roberts (KS), Jim Talent (MO), Chuck Hagel (NE), George Voinovich (OH), and John Thune (SD), as well as Democratic senators Evan Bayh (IN), Tom Harkin (IA), Ben Nelson (NE), Kent Conrad (ND), Byron L. Dorgan (ND), Tim Johnson (SD) and Blanche Lincoln (AR) all voted for the measure. Senators in both parties -- mostly from coastal states -- opposed, including Democrats Christopher Dodd (CT), Joseph I. Lieberman (CT), and Joseph R. Biden (DE), and Republicans Susan Collins (ME), Olympia Snowe (ME), Judd Gregg (NH), John E. Sununu (NH), Gordon Smith (OR), and Lincoln Chafee (RI).

This past week, Bush took a renewable energy tour to promote his latest energy policy proposals. Among his proposals is a plan to fund research to enhance ethanol-based fuels -- which are reported to burn cleaner than fossil fuels -- to render them more cost-effective by 2012. The "mixed signals" occurred, however, when, shortly before Bush's visit, the White House reallocated $5 million to the renewable energy lab to restore jobs lost due to budget cuts.

From the February 22 edition of The New York Times:

Mr. Bush's appearance at the laboratory came at the end of a two-day, three-state tour, to Wisconsin, Michigan and Colorado, to try to focus Americans' attention on the alternative energy proposals he set forth in his State of the Union address. In that speech, Mr. Bush declared that the United States is "addicted to oil" and proposed that the government spend more money on research into ethanol, solar and wind power and battery- and hydrogen-powered cars.

"I think part of this deal today is to help develop national will," Mr. Bush said in the panel discussion, when he was flanked by seven White House-selected energy specialists who backed up his ideas.

Members of both parties generally praise the president's proposals, although Democrats say they are not adequate to address the nation's dependence on oil and Republicans are skeptical about the practicality of alternative fuels like ethanol, which is made from corn or plant fibers.

Posted In
Environment & Science, Energy
The New York Times
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