Column: A 'maliciously stupid' program

Life is good for my brother-in-law, a Wyoming wheat farmer. Five years ago he'd get $2.50 a bushel and that was OK when there was enough rain to increase the number of bushels to harvest per acre.

This year he's getting paid a lot more for last year's crop. Part of it is shrewd marketing - going organic is worth roughly $5 more a bushel. But the rest of the windfall for his hard work, which amounts to another $8 a bushel or so, can be traced to less wheat overall being available.

Poor wheat crops elsewhere are part of it. I suspect part of it can also be traced to cropland devoted to corn increasing by over 25 percent last year to feed off the ethanol subsidies.

It's a crazy world out there when government can spend our money - 51 cents per gallon of ethanol - to make food into fuel. It's crazier still when it takes more than a gallon of petroleum fuel to create a gallon of ethanol, and it's absolutely insane when it takes 450 pounds of corn to make enough ethanol to fill an SUV.

What are ethanol's other "advantages," other than happy voters in the cornbelt? Well, you can't put it in a pipeline, so it has to be transported in big trucks that run on petroleum. You can't refine the water out of it, so it's probably not a good thing for every car on the road these days. And corn ethanol contains more volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides (a greenhouse gas in case you actually believe in global warming) than gasoline. The EPA says those two pollutants cause thousands of premature deaths each year.

The real kicker, though, is at the grocery store, where inflation figures to continue. Corn is a wonderful crop in that it feeds people and the animals that we eat. When more corn goes to making fuel, the rest of the corn costs more to feed livestock.

Making all this doubly ridiculous, the price at the pump has gone up, up, up.

The reality is that there would be no need for an ethanol subsidy if corn ethanol were a good idea. This is vote-buying economics of the worst kind, and it's magnified by the first-in-the-campaign Iowa presidential caucus.

Syndicated columnist Jack Kelly summed it up best, calling the ethanol program "maliciously stupid."

We already have feel-good legislation that makes all of us poorer by requiring utilities to purchase renewable energy. Now the ethanol policy is serving as a double-whammy, whacking us at the grocery store and having no impact at all on high gas prices.

This is what passes as energy policy in Washington these days. And just wait until the idea of there being enough solar power to be captured in Nevada to light up the whole country catches on, or the idea there is enough wind energy in the upper Midwest to do the same. How much will we be made to "invest" in those schemes?

Here's my idea of a sound energy policy:

• There are 200 years worth of coal reserves in the U.S. Use it. Where I came from there's a 30-year-old coal-fired power plant that emits a thin stream of yellowish smoke. You can't even see it when it's breezy. Imagine how little pollution there would be with all the technological advances made since that plant was built. Folks, life is built on trade-offs. I'm willing to trade a consistent energy source in exchange for something that dissipates into nothing but blue sky as opposed to hoping the clouds go away so I can have hot water.

• Here's a renewable I can support: Let's go nuclear. We have The China Syndrome coming out while Three-Mile Island had some problems back during the Carter years, and it has stunted the development of nuclear power. We know what nuclear power can provide - and we also know a wind turbine for a home here in Kingman won't be able to keep the appliances in that home running 24/7. The Three-Mile Island death toll, meanwhile, remains at zero.

• Good old oil: We're sitting on hundreds of years of it. There's a huge deposit in North Dakota, all of us are aware of Alaska's potential, and Colorado's shale oil deposits could meet our needs for centuries. Off shore reserves are substantial.

There's something else about nuclear, coal and petroleum power developed in our own country - jobs, lots of them, and jobs that pay well.

• Let private companies do their own work on solar, wind and hydrogen alternatives. There's some promising stuff out there, and private industry should be left alone to come up with energy solutions rather than Congress "investing" our money on crap like corn ethanol.

None of this can happen overnight, but an energy policy that basically gets Washington out of the way and takes a common sense approach to the environment would eventually do wonders for the price we pay at the pump and the grocery store checkout stand.