Vilsack: Some Hard Choices on Ethanol

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Jeff Haynes / Reuters

Secretary of Agriculture–designate Tom Vilsack

Iowa is the ethanol capital of the nation, and President-elect Barack Obama has been a reliable supporter of biofuels, so it's no surprise that former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, his choice for Agriculture Secretary, has been an even more reliable supporter of biofuels, even chairing a national coalition on ethanol (ethyl alcohol, a fuel distilled from plant matter). "As governor of one of our most abundant farm states, he led with vision," Obama said of Vilsack on Wednesday, "fostering an agricultural economy of the future that not only grows the food we eat but the energy we use."

Unfortunately, the scientific evidence is becoming increasingly clear that the agricultural economy should stick to growing food; turns out that using cropland to grow fuel instead is an environmental and economic catastrophe, accelerating the conversion of forests and wetlands into new cropland while jacking up food prices around the world. (See pictures of the global food crisis here.)

Vilsack has never been known as a reformer on this issue. And neither has Obama. But while many conservationists and sustainable-agriculture activists are disappointed by the appointment, it could have been a lot worse than Vilsack. The American Farm Bureau hailed his nomination, but it would have done institutional cartwheels if Obama had picked a toe-the-line "aggie" like House Agriculture Committee chairman Collin Peterson or former ranking member Charlie Stenholm. Vilsack does have predictably close ties to traditional agriculture and agribusiness, and he did run the nation's leading corn and soybean state. But he has also been a supporter of farm-conservation programs, clean-water regulations and a cap-and-trade scheme to prevent global warming. "He's not really an aggie," says one lobbyist involved in food and agriculture issues.

In any case, Obama has made fairly conventional Cabinet picks, even for departments where he has called for dramatic reform; it's hard to imagine him picking a dramatic reformer for a department where he hasn't. That's especially true for the intensely politicized Agriculture Department. Any serious opponent of the farm lobby — like the six implausible candidates, including rural-affairs activist Chuck Hassebrook and organic farmer Fred Kirschenmann, that a group of prominent foodies recently suggested to Obama — would get ripped to shreds by the aggies on Capitol Hill. Vilsack probably won't launch a Nixon-goes-to-China initiative to block environmentally destructive biofuels, but he might not resist that kind of initiative coming out of the White House and EPA.

That's because Vilsack — like Obama and his energy-and-environment team — has shown an especially deep interest in climate change. He wouldn't be the first devoted biofuels advocate to change his mind after recognizing they're making climate change worse, not to mention contributing to food insecurity here and food riots in the Third World. In fact, a climate-change task force Vilsack co-chaired for the Council on Foreign Relations recommended that "the United States phase out domestic subsidies for mature biofuels such as conventional corn-based ethanol." That wouldn't go over big in Iowa.

In January, I chatted with Vilsack about biofuels after a Hillary Clinton campaign event at a soy-biodiesel plant in Newton, Iowa. The theme of the day was that biofuels produce jobs, and Vilsack was pushing Iowa as "the clean-energy capital of America." But he was clearly aware of the new research suggesting that biofuels in general — and corn ethanol in particular — created more carbon emissions by accelerating deforestation than they saved by replacing fossil fuels. "It's definitely something we need to study," he said. Vilsack suggested that second-generation biofuels like cellulosic ethanol manufactured from switchgrass could solve the problem, particularly if it were grown on unproductive hillsides so that it wouldn't displace food crops. "You can get that stuff 25 feet high — and you don't need as much land or fertilizer or energy to grow it," Vilsack told me. "If we want to save the rain forest, we're going to have to invest in these advanced biofuels."

In fact, the jury is still out even on advanced biofuels; switchgrass would clearly be a big improvement on corn, but it's not yet clear if it would be an improvement on gasoline if there isn't enough unproductive land. Perhaps advanced biofuels from crop waste or even municipal waste would work better. In any case, it was interesting to see Obama make two references Wednesday to "advanced biofuels" and none to ethanol. And it's interesting that Vilsack has thought about this stuff in some detail.

The EPA is now devising a "life-cycle" test designed to measure whether various biofuels really reduce overall carbon emissions from the field to the tank; the farm lobby is already pushing for a weak test, because a strict one could halt the biofuel revolution. The position Vilsack's department takes on this arcane test could signal whether it will really serve, as Obama pledged on Wednesday, "not big agribusiness or Washington influence peddlers but family farmers and the American people." But that would require real change — not only for the department but for Vilsack and for Obama too.

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