Vilsack and Biofuels

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.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.