Barack Obama’s nomination today of Tom Vilsack as Agriculture Secretary has raised reasonable concerns about whether the former Iowa Governor is “drunk on ethanol.” But of course it is crucial as to what kind of ethanol it is: perhaps switchgrass’ higher energy content might make it more viable, especially if it is a matter of land that has already been devoted to growing switchgrass. So we still don’t know what that means.
Meanwhile, the New York Times notes that Vilsack chaired a Council on Foreign Relations task force, “which recommended phasing out subsidies for mature biofuels, including corn-based ethanol, as well as reducing tariffs on imported biofuels like Brazilian sugar ethanol.” I have that report in front of me. Here is the key language:
The Task Force finds that the wisdom of lowering or removing biofuels tarriffs depends on the emissions impact of the fuel in question. It notes that a similar assessment applies applies to policies that promote domestic biofuels production and use. No blanket judgment is possible–promoting some biofuels sources will be unequivocally unwise, encouraging others will be clearly prudent, and much will fall into murkier territory. The Task force recommends that the United States, as a basic principle, seek to reduce and remove biofuels tarriffs, but that it do so only with careful attention to the impact of these tarriffs on net emissions. That might be done through standards for biofuels–applied equally to domestic and imported biofuels–or by making tarriff reductions part of broader climate packages designed to achieve net cuts in emissions in the countries that produce and consume biofuels. It also recommends that the United States and others, notably the EU, work together to harmonize any standards for low-carbon biofuels to ensure an efficient and environmentally sound global market. At the same time, it recommends that the United States phase out domestic subsidies for mature biofuels such as conventional corn-based ethanol.
If we’re reading tea leaves, this is pretty weak tea. We’re going to reduce tarriffs on Brazilian switchgrass ethanol–in principle, of course. But also no general judgment is possible, you understand. And maybe it would be better to wait for such tarriff reductions until we can get a global climate agreement, or we can get the Brazilians to adopt binding caps, or until we can agree with the Europeans for joint standards. And of course all of those things will take lots of time, don’t you know. And yes, we want to phase out corn ethanol subsidies, but of course phasing out can take a quite a long while, and really we only mean “conventional” corn-based ethanol, whatever that means.
To some extent, this is inevitable in a group project–as the (somewhat ethnocentric) saying goes, a camel is a horse designed by committee. And this is particularly true of CFR, where everyone is just so above it all, and they can’t really be controversial, because their heads are hurting so much while they gravely balance power and responsibility.
Vilsack seems to be a good man; he has a real commitment to combatting climate change and promoting a progressive energy policy; and coming from a former Iowa governor, the CFR statement is practically Earth Liberation Front material. But I hope that during his confirmation hearings we learn more precisely what exactly he means by all of this.