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Ethanol Undergoes Evolution as Political Issue
Former Opponents Clinton, McCain Tout Its Benefits, but Its Campaign Value May Be Dropping

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 13, 2007

What's the closest thing in politics to a religious experience? The ethanol conversion.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) experienced one in May of last year. Long opposed to federal support for the corn-based biofuel, she reversed herself and endorsed even bigger ethanol incentives than she previously voted against. Now running for president, Clinton is promoting a $50 billion strategic energy fund, laden with more ethanol perks.

Political opponents depict Clinton's about-face as pandering to Iowa Democrats, who will cast the first votes of the 2008 nominating season. When the senator made her first trip to Iowa in January, the Republican National Committee circulated a synopsis of her ethanol record, awash with "no" votes. "A Calculating Clinton Flips on Ethanol to Score a Run with Iowa Voters," the headline read.

Although the timing of Clinton's shift tracks neatly with the primary calendar, it also coincides with an ethanol boomlet in New York state, along with a nationwide surge in alternative fuel demand. For years, ethanol was disparaged beyond the Corn Belt as a farm subsidy disguised as an environmental cause. Now it is accepted as a mainstream solution to global warming and oil imports. Even Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), an ethanol foe so fierce that he skipped the Iowa caucuses in 2000, says he is willing to give it another look.

As ethanol becomes more accepted, it appears to be losing its potency as a presidential campaign issue. That means Clinton's reversal may not translate into much of an advantage for, say, Sen. Barack Obama (D), whose Illinois political roots have made him a natural ethanol crusader. A senior Clinton aide explained that the senator's views shifted as the industry took hold in her own back yard and as the nation's energy demands changed.

Iowa voters understand those evolving circumstances, said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). "Nowadays, I think they kind of expect people to be for ethanol -- whether they're newly born-again ethanol people, or old-fashioned, long-term ethanol people."

Ethanol became a political cause in the early 1970s, when the Arab oil embargo raised voter concerns about U.S. dependence on foreign oil, and it got its first federal assistance in a 1978 energy tax bill. It took a while to catch on. A 1986 Department of Agriculture study predicted ethanol could not survive long-term without "massive government subsidies."

Candidates campaigning in Iowa faced a simple choice: pander to caucus-goers by vowing to lavishly fund ethanol, or reject it and hope to be rewarded for fiscal integrity. It was an especially tricky choice for GOP politicians, because Iowa farmers lean Republican.

But starting in the 2004 presidential cycle, public and internal campaign polls have showed that Democratic caucus-goers in particular rate agricultural issues lower than other concerns, including the economy, the Iraq war, health care and education.

"It's the lore that if you come to Iowa and you want to campaign here, you want to understand that ethanol is vital to the state," said Des Moines-based pollster J. Ann Selzer, whose January survey found 92 percent of Iowa voters rated ethanol as important to the state's economic future. "But it's perfectly reasonable for someone's opinion to shift as the world has shifted."

McCain's reversal has been almost as dramatic as Clinton's. In a 1999 Des Moines debate, the senator bluntly said: "Ethanol is not worth it. It does not help the consumer. Those ethanol subsidies should be phased out."

Campaigning in Iowa last month, where he is trailing GOP candidate Rudolph W. Giuliani, McCain told voters: "We need energy independence. We need it for a whole variety of reasons, and obviously ethanol is a big part of that equation."

Ethanol production has doubled nationwide in the past three years, according to the Renewable Fuels Association, an ethanol trade group. It is expected to double again by the time the next president is sworn in. Much of the growth has taken place outside the Midwest, including in New York state, where five sites are under development. Plants are in the works along the East and West coasts and across the South. Ethanol production exists in the Texas panhandle, and a plant is opening soon in Arizona -- McCain's home state.

As a senator, Clinton has consistently sought to thwart this development. She has voted against ethanol interests more than a dozen times during her six years in office, opposing efforts that could have helped to accelerate the industry's growth in New York.

With vast expanses of farmland and forests, New York is ripe for producing both traditional ethanol from corn, along with a newer generation "cellulosic ethanol" from wood products.

Cornelius B. Murphy, president of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, was disappointed when the Department of Energy last month announced six grants, worth a total of $385 million, for cellulosic ethanol plants -- and none of the New York sites made the cut. In fact, not one of the winning facilities was in the Northeast. "There's a lot of ethanol money washing around, but it seems always to go to the corn states," Murphy lamented.

He said he has met with Clinton at least six times since last year, and describes the senator as "strongly supportive of using the agriculture industry to help solve energy problems."

But Clinton has not had a chance to vote for ethanol since her conversion. The last time the Senate considered ethanol-related legislation was in July 2005, when Clinton opposed the final version of an energy bill that included the cellulosic ethanol grants. She also opposed an amendment requiring refiners to use 8 billion gallons of renewable fuels per year by 2012 -- meant to be a huge boost to the ethanol industry.

In 2003, she voted four times in favor of allowing states to seek waivers to a national renewable fuels standard, and against an amendment to set that standard at 5 billion gallons per year by 2012.

A year earlier, Clinton voted to delay a similar mandate for alternative fuels. She also signed a letter to Senate colleagues raising concerns about possible environmental problems associated with ethanol.

She officially announced her position last May, during a speech to the National Press Club. Acknowledging the ethanol industry's rapid growth, Clinton said, "We need to be moving on a much faster track." She called for "immediate steps to make sure that the rapid expansion in biofuels continues and that we not only have the vehicles that can run on ethanol, but we have places where you can get them filled."

In a July 31 speech at an Upstate New York farm, Clinton explained why she had changed her mind. "You know, I've spoken out against just relying on corn in the Midwest because I want New York farmers, I want farmers around the country to participate in this."

Her enthusiasm has grown in recent months. During a January Web chat, the Democratic presidential contender told viewers, "I support all kinds of ethanol." And in a news release announcing a Feb. 26 trip to Upstate New York that included a visit to a new ethanol facility, Clinton's office noted that the senator "has long been a champion of new technologies and jobs, combating global warming, and reducing our nation's dependence on foreign oil."

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