Conservation Update: Ethanol Subsidy Expires

Something died a quiet death at midnight Dec. 31 that should have set off a huge celebration in the sportsmen's community--and all others who love fish, wildlife, clean water and air: the 45-cents-per gallon ethanol subsidy expired.

We're not cheering the end of an annual $2-6 billion annual subsidy American taxpayers have been sending to refiners for the last three decades, although there's nothing wrong with having a party about that. We're lighting the fireworks for the end of a well-intentioned program that turned into an environmental disaster.

Some history:

Ethanol originally was considered good news by conservationists because it would mean reducing the amount of carbon-producing fossil fuels with a renewable plant-based product. What could be more green? But the small push for ethanol grew into a big rush in 2007 when President George W. Bush -- to the cheers of most in the green community -- announced the goal of having 15 percent of domestic gasoline consumption converted to ethanol in 10 years. Before you could say "more row crops, less prairie grass" corn prices had gone from $2 to $4 a bushel, and by the end of the following spring, the nation had planted 90 million acres in corn -- the most since World War II.

That change not only meant an immediate end to millions of acres of natural grasses critical to wildlife such as ducks and upland birds, it also gave landowners an economic incentive to pull out of their CRP contracts.

That was just the tip of the bad-news iceberg for ethanol lovers. Research soon showed that the fuel required to plant, harvest and turn corn into ethanol actually produced more carbon than the ethanol would save. And the amount of water and fertilizers required to grow the corn and produce the ethanol would drain aquifers and increase the already heavy nutrient load of streams and rivers from agricultural run-off.

Soon most sportsmen's conservation groups were pushing for an end to ethanol subsidies.

So much for good intentions.

The end finally came in one of the few instances of bi-partisan cooperation in Congress all year: Economic conservatives joined environmental progressives to defeat measures that would have extended the subsidy. It may have been the only present Congress gave sportsmen last year, but it was a big one -- and gives us a chance to think of a happier New Year.