Remember those we’re-so-green-with-ethanol television commercials? They were in the distant past, say 2004. I think they were for an oil company touting its environmental credentials, or a car manufacturer showing how Earth-friendly its large trucks could be. They showed bright blue skies and puffs of clouds over seas of cleanest, greenest, most appealing cornfields imaginable. They would pan past clean, attractive people in denim shirts doing something to the corn, maybe picking it by hand, smiling as broadly as they possibly could as a small SUV passed by without raising a grain of dust, the green logo above the rear bumper showing clearly it was powered by the very crop produced by this happy, tractorless tribe. What a wonderful pastoral scene. Running our cars on corn is so clean, so good, so sustainable.
That’s how I remember it. I recall thinking and writing that this PR vision of growing fuel was misleading and the process was likely not as environmentally beneficial as we were asked to believe. Some scientists said so, but it didn’t matter. The ethanol craze was on. Democrats rejoiced. Republicans joined in. Congress approved billions in annual subsidies and a mandate, ordering us to use increasing amounts of ethanol in our gasoline. President George W. Bush spoke of his vision that one day soon we could turn grass clippings into billions of gallons of fuel. Ethanol made from corn, or any other vegetative stuff lying around, would be the fuel of the future. We would be energy independent. We would make less greenhouse gas. We would create thousands and thousand of jobs. Oh, boy.