It may not seem like much, but Al Gore's recent admission that ethanol subsidies are bad policy is a really big deal.
"It is not a good policy to have these massive subsidies for (U.S.) first generation ethanol," Reuters reported Gore saying during a green energy summit in Athens. "First generation ethanol I think was a mistake. The energy conversion ratios are at best very small."
This is hardly likely to change U.S. energy policy overnight. As Gore said, "It's hard once such a program is put in place to deal with the lobbies that keep it going." Though that is one more reason to oppose such programs, it is almost beside the point. Gore's admission has much more important implications, namely the revelation of two important truths: 1. Policies to prop up ethanol are environmental frauds; and 2. So is Al Gore.
Al Gore's doomsaying has turned him into the world's famous environmental prophet. He is the sage in the green robe. His words are truth -- undisputable and indispensable. With the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, he shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize "for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change."
"Knowledge," they wrote. And "needed" measures to counteract the change. Until this week, one of those needed measures, according to Gore, was to turn corn into fuel.
"I was also proud to stand up for the ethanol tax exemption when it was under attack in the Congress -- at one point, supplying a tie-breaking vote in the Senate to save it," Gore said during a Dec. 1, 1998, speech to a Farm Journal conference. "The more we can make this home-grown fuel a successful, widely-used product, the better-off our farmers and our environment will be."
The first part of that statement is true. The second is not.
On Aug. 4, 1994, Gore cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate to save the EPA's ethanol mandate. The fight was between farm state politicians, who wanted to mandate ethanol use, and others who thought methanol would work just as well. Gore broke the tie in favor of the farm state lobby. Though he claimed it was for the planet, Gore's support of ethanol really was to buy the votes of farmers. He admitted as much in Athens:
One of the reasons I made that mistake is that I paid particular attention to the farmers in my home state of Tennessee, and I had a certain fondness for the farmers in the state of Iowa because I was about to run for president.
Al Gore? Put politics before the planet? Pshaw.
But it is true; he has admitted it.
This is important because Gore's ethanol exploits duplicate the entire global climate change debate in miniature form.
To gain votes, Gore pushed an idea that was widely thought to be environmentally beneficial, but which skeptics claimed was actually the opposite. The Heritage Foundation at least as far back as the early 1980s was warning that ethanol subsidies were bad energy policy. By the mid-1990s, the mandate was being attacked as a sop to the corn lobby that had no environmental benefits. And by the late 2000s, the broadly accepted view had changed entirely. Scientists had come to believe that grain-based biofuels like ethanol were driving up food prices, causing food shortages, and possibly making global warming worse.
Al Gore, though, boasted that ethanol was helping save the planet. From Gore there was no doubt, no uncertainty, no scientific argument. It was his way, the green way, or the path to planetary destruction. There were no other options.
But there were, and the people offering them -- not Al Gore -- were right. And that leads to the obvious question: If the Enviro-Oracle got ethanol wrong, then what else might he have gotten wrong?
The point is not that Gore is entirely wrong. It's that he is wrong enough (remember the errors in An Inconvenient Truth) to merit skepticism. But law doesn't take skeptics' views into account. Environmental regulations compel compliance. Only in the market does the skepticism of the minority become an important player. If Al Gore bases his personal financial investments on faulty science, it matters to no one but Al Gore, and perhaps his wife. But if states base environmental regulations on faulty science he pushed, we are all harmed.
The great ethanol error would've been corrected quickly had the market been left in control. It was only the misguided hand of government that grew this problem to global proportions, and perpetuates it still.
This fall the EPA approved a waiver allowing gasoline to contain up to 15 percent ethanol for cars made since 2007. Congress has mandated that 13.95 billion gallons of renewable fuels (mostly ethanol) be produced in 2011, up from 12.95 billion gallons this year. (Can you imagine how much worse it would be had Gore been president?)
The bottom line is this: If we cannot base our environmental policies on the pronouncements of Al Gore, should we really be passing costly, far-reaching mandates that force people to behave as Al Gore would want them to? Wouldn't it be better to let the market decide, and leave Al Gore to investing heavily in biofuel companies?
Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. His Twitter ID is Drewhampshire.