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Obama's Evolving Ethanol Rhetoric

By Alec MacGillis
Given that energy appears likely to be a dominant issue in this election season, Barack Obama's campaign may want to settle on a more consistent message when it comes to subsidies for ethanol, the corn-based alternative fuel that is hailed by some as a key resource in weaning America off foreign oil and forestalling global warming but lambasted by others as a wasteful boondoggle that is driving up food prices.

Since entering the Senate in 2005, Obama has been a staunch supporter of ethanol -- he justified his vote for for the Bush Administration's 2005 energy bill, which was favorable to the oil industry, on the grounds that it also contained subsidies for ethanol and other forms of alternative energy, and he has sought earmarks for research projects on ethanol and other biofuels in his home state of Illinois, the second-highest corn-producing state after Iowa. Obama's support for ethanol is shared by many farm state senators (even Hillary Clinton came around after an ethanol industry took root in upstate New York) but it contrasts sharply with John McCain, who has for years been so critical of the subsidies that he decided not to compete in the 2000 Iowa caucuses.

Today, in a New York Times article on Obama's support for ethanol, Jason Furman, the Obama campaign's new economic policy director, is quoted saying that Obama's stance on the issue was based on the merits, a determination that ethanol subsidies are in the national interest. "That is what has always motivated him on this issue, and will continue to determine his policy going forward," Furman said. The article continues: "Asked if Mr. Obama brought any predisposition or bias to the ethanol debate because he represents a corn-growing state that stands to benefit from a boom, Mr. Furman said, 'He wants to represent the United States of America, and his policies are based on what's best for the country.'"

It was the expected answer during a presidential campaign -- except that it flies in the face of what Obama himself said on the issue a few months ago. Asked about his support for ethanol during a press conference at a gas station in Indianapolis in April, Obama was remarkably candid in explaining why he backed the subsidies: "Look, I've been a strong ethanol supporter because Illinois ... is a major corn producer," he said. He went on to say that he was concerned about reports that ethanol was helping drive up food prices, and that he saw ethanol as merely a transitional option that would eventually give way to biofuels that were more efficient and has less of an impact on food prices, such as ones made out of switchgrass.

Furman came on board the campaign only this month, so it is understandable if he is not entirely on the same page yet with the candidate. The fact is, though, that Obama's record in the Senate has been very clearly influenced by what he viewed as the needs of his Illinois constituents, particularly those in "downstate" Illinois, where Obama has pointed to his popularity as proof that he can win over voters in more rural and conservative areas. Obama is supporting the new farm bill, which McCain also derides as wasteful, because he believes it will help farmers in his state; he backed last year's $14 billion Water Resources Development Act (also opposed by McCain) after making sure it included money to upgrade locks on the Illinois and Mississippi rivers) and he backed huge subsidies last year for liquified coal -- a highly controversial technology that would be a boon for Southern Illinois mines -- before backing away from the idea under fire from environmentalists.

By Post Editor  |  June 23, 2008; 2:16 PM ET
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I'm a barack supporter but i very much hope he develops a consistent, anti-corn based ethanol stance.

Posted by: Barack supporter | June 25, 2008 1:21 PM | Report abuse

You mean the Great barack was for ethanol subsidies before he was against them?

Posted by: Krishna | June 25, 2008 12:07 AM | Report abuse

Ladies and Gentlemen, for the last 8 years Republicans have been badgering and beating up the Democrats, and the Dems just stood there and took it without fighting back. NOT THIS YEAR. Not this time. Finally we have a Democratic candidate who is fighting back hard, who is making the right points and making the right arguments to bring America forward. We are witnessing the beginning of a Democrat party revival lead by a great man with great intelligence and great vision. Do not back down from Republican slander. These guys are idiots. Every problem we are facing today you can be 100% sure is due to Republican politics. We have a choice this year between the same old crap, or change that will lead America in a better direction. Alternative energy is the solution, not oil oil oil that is the base and the strength of the Republican party. We've already given the Exxons and Enrons far too much. Vote for change, Obama 2008!

Posted by: Joe Dumars | June 24, 2008 10:53 PM | Report abuse

Once again were at the "lesser of two evils" place in presidential election but we already have a president who LOVES ETHANOL we certainly don't need another Ethanol dummy in the white house!

Posted by: Joe Lovshe | June 24, 2008 10:12 PM | Report abuse

ethanol does not equal CORN.

Posted by: c'mon | June 24, 2008 8:28 PM | Report abuse

Why are we only now hearing about Obama and Ethanol???

Published in Feb.
On energy policy, it turns out Obama is a big supporter of corn-based ethanol which is well known for being an energy-intensive crop to grow. It is estimated that seven barrels of oil are required to produce eight barrels of corn ethanol, according to research by the Cato Institute. Ethanol's impact on climate change is nominal and isn't "green" according to Alisa Gravitz, Co-op America executive director. "It simply isn't a major improvement over gasoline when it comes to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions." A 2006 University of Minnesota study by Jason Hill and David Tilman, and an earlier study published in BioScience in 2005, concur. (There's even concern that a reliance on corn-based ethanol would lead to higher food prices.)

So why would Obama be touting this as a solution to our oil dependency? Could it have something to do with the fact that the first presidential primary is located in Iowa, corn capitol of the country? In legislative terms this means Obama voted in favor of $8 billion worth of corn subsidies in 2006 alone, when most of that money should have been committed to alternative energy sources such as solar, tidal and wind.

Posted by: greenfun | June 24, 2008 6:06 PM | Report abuse

Obama rarely tells the truth. He should not be trusted -- you can't even take him at his word on minor issues. His word means nothing.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 24, 2008 2:59 PM | Report abuse

Corn based ethanol. O.K. did you all see what happened to the corn crops in the Mid West this week? Guess we will buy our corn from China, or some other country? Let's drill for our own oil, and get more Nuke plants working!

Posted by: Mattie | June 24, 2008 2:17 PM | Report abuse

Who do you think set this guy up to run for senator and president anyway? The Chicago political machine along with the Ethanol industry in Illinois. Ethanol is to Obama what Oil is to Bush.

Posted by: Lynn E | June 24, 2008 11:59 AM | Report abuse

Thank you for a good article, Mr. MacGillis. It is unfortunate that so many people, even presidential candidates, are blind to the distortions that are being created by the nation's biofuel policies. The problem is not biofuels per se, but the subsidies, mandates and import protection that have been created to support the domestic industry.

The Federal Government has been supporting ethanol for around 30 years; states like Minnesota have been subsidizing it for almost as long. It is not an infant industry it is a spoiled adolescent. In 2006, the industry was boasting it did not need subsidies (but neither did it offer to give them up). Now, despite the high cost of gasoline, it is struggling with a self-induced problem: high feedstock prices. Were there no federally mandated volumes, output would contract and the market would come back into balance. But the mandates basically ensure that the ethanol industry will out-bid other users.

The industry only 18 months ago was taking credit for driving up prices above the target price for commodity payments, thus saving several billion dollars in crop subsidies. That was when the corn price was below $4 per bushel. Now the price is approaching $8 per bushel, but the industry is saying, "Ain't our fault!" No serious observers of the market believe that.

Meanwhile, ethanol's little sister, biodiesel, would close up shop (except for the small boutique plants producing fuel from used cooking oil) were it not for the $1 per gallon federal tax credit blenders receive for blending it, and the up to $1 per gallon subsidy provided in addition by some states. But an increasing amount of that subsidized biodiesel is ending being sold not in the United States but in Europe. Last year, the Federal Government spent some $300 million on subsidies for biodiesel shipped to Europe. What do the Presidential candidates think of THAT?

For more information on the multiple ways in which the federal and state governments subsidize biofuels, see the reports by the Global Subsidies Initiative, which can be downloaded for free from its web site,

(See the last two studies listed on the page.)

Posted by: GSI | June 24, 2008 10:49 AM | Report abuse

Posted by: What MSM wont report | June 24, 2008 9:53 AM | Report abuse

WARNING - all you Obama voters. Here come the flip-flops.

Can this man stand behind anything he says?

His campaign slogan "change you can believe" really means you can believe he's going to change everything he said in the primaries.

Posted by: gskrptr | June 24, 2008 9:47 AM | Report abuse


Was it big oil money pouring into the "McCain Victory '08 Fund," as the sudden change in McCain's stand on drilling in environmentally sensitive areas suggests? How will we ever know? There's no benefit to a commercial news outlet in uncovering the source of the RNC PAC/527 money...

The more money McCain (or Obama) has to spend, the more the media stands to earn on selling commercials. Selling not only to the two campaigns, but to PACs and 527s and anybody else who will buy air-time. The media clearly have a vested interest in not just ratings, but more so in the demand for commercials, and so the closer the race - and the more money the candidates (or parties, or 527s, etc.) raise - the more money the media outlets make by selling. Why report on McCain's funding success? Much better business to take advantage of all that cash, not cut off the former campaign reformer now laying golden eggs. It's their bottom line at stake, same as it ever was.

Talk about a conflict of interest.Was it big oil money pouring in, as the sudden change in McCain's stand on drilling in environmentally sensitive areas suggests? How will we ever know? There's no benefit to a commercial news outlet in uncovering the source of the money - they are just trying to get their piece of it.

Find about who else Oil controls.

To find out more about the oil connection in Congress, check out the Follow the Oil Money online vote tracker at Find out how oily your members are and then contact them to demand a Separation of Oil & State!

Posted by: McCains Media-follow the money | June 24, 2008 9:46 AM | Report abuse

With all those votes for pet home state projects, one wonders how he can claim to be against pork barel spending, with a straight face!

The worst of them all is the ethanol subsidy. For what? For getting elected!

"he backed huge subsidies last year for liquified coal -- a highly controversial technology that would be a boon for Southern Illinois mines -- before backing away from the idea under fire from environmentalists."

Does the guy have any principles? Any vision? I guess his recent (a switch) support for the FISA bill answers that question.

He is providing material for another "Selling of the President" book.

Posted by: Krishna | June 24, 2008 8:06 AM | Report abuse

A big hole in Senator Obama's campaign, which Senator McCain has to capitalize:
"Ethanol increases global warming, destroys forests and inflates food prices."

This is what Time reported on April 7, 2008 (pp. 40-45). Obama's aides seem not to read Time Magazine. What a stupid idea of alternative energy.

Posted by: peace4world | June 24, 2008 5:58 AM | Report abuse

Ethanol is not as good as oil, but its all American. It helps lower the price of oil because it offers competition to oil. Obama is right we need to have a choice between gas or ethanol.

Posted by: Derrick | June 24, 2008 3:53 AM | Report abuse

Starving kids in Africa through ethanol subsidies...that is the kind of change Obama believes in.

Posted by: JB | June 24, 2008 12:18 AM | Report abuse

Ethanol is not the savior of alternate energy sources, and I wish he'd just get off it already.

Posted by: Piter | June 23, 2008 9:22 PM | Report abuse

Me think-um Dark man speak with forked tongue!

Wait, that just "Change".

Posted by: RAT-The | June 23, 2008 8:40 PM | Report abuse

Ok -- this is a story WHY? OMG the WaPo is soooo in the tank for McCain. I don't happen to agree with Sen. Obama's position on ethanol -- but I understand it coming from a farm state. Obama hasn't contradicted himself, an aide just didn't roll over and "speak" the way Mr. MacGillis thought appropriate. I mean come on?!? With all the McCain flip flops the last 2 weeks and THIS gets a full blog? I'm about 1 week away from turning off the WaPo as one of my main online news outlets. I lived in DC for 20 years, left in 97 but have continued to count on the Post. But the paper I knew is no more. John McCain has gotten a free ride from MSM (he's THE most popular guest on Sunday Morning shows EVER) but this constant snarky, weighted drumbeat is beyond anything I ever expected. Amazing.

Posted by: straight talk my a** | June 23, 2008 7:35 PM | Report abuse

I'm glad to see that Obama is considering various alternatives to oil. It is true that everyone may not work out, but that's why you "bet a little bit on each horse", unlike the Republican position of betting all our future on oil. And whenever the Republican oil oil oil policy fails, they like to blame environmentalists for not allowing them to drill new holes in seals' heads in search of more oil. Obama is taking America the right direction: new, cleaner alternatives to oil. It's time we catch up and surpass the rest of the world, rather then letting them develop the new technologies and us falling more and more behind.

Posted by: Joe Tilly | June 23, 2008 7:02 PM | Report abuse

All present and future biofuels have the same problem. Biofuel crops are all too low in energy, too light in weight, and thus too bulky and expensive to transport to be of any real value. They all require vast amounts of sunlight to grow and thus take up far too much land and water resources to be ecologically beneficial. By contrast, coal is very heavy, high in energy content, and thus makes energy sense to transport. Coal already exists in the ground so you don't have to grow it, water it, or fertilize it. We simply extract coal and ship it to power plants where it is burned. If we could develop a biological process to turn coal into biodiesel, that might make energy sense, but no such process exists. All biofuel schemes, planned or imagined, will never amount to a hill of beans (excuse the expression) because of the basic limitations of the solar based production process.

Even if we used our entire 300 million acres of cropland for ethanol production, we would only satisfy 15% of national highway energy demand (see "The False Hope of Biofuels" Every year the human race burns up the equivalent of 400 years worth of total planetary vegetation in the condensed form of fossil fuels. How are we ever going to replace all of that concentrated biomass energy by growing a relatively small volume of biofuel crops on our overpopulated, fresh water starved little planet?

The inevitable long term answer to our energy crisis is nuclear energy. You can transport enough nuclear fuel on one lone truck to run a large nuclear reactor for 18 months. You can use a process called "Green Freedom" to make superior quality, 100% sulfur free synthetic gasoline and jet fuel from atmospheric carbon dioxide using meltdown proof prismatic block and/or pebble bed nuclear reactors for 10,000 years without increasing atmospheric levels of CO2. As James Lovelock said, "Nuclear power is the only green solution." SEE

For all the biofuel disaster facts, and details of far better alternatives see -

Posted by: Christopher Calder | June 23, 2008 6:46 PM | Report abuse

McCain is in bed with every lobbyist or business person out there, so he doesn't come in with hands clean also.

Also, remember Keating 5?

Posted by: AzynAm247 | June 23, 2008 6:30 PM | Report abuse

Obama and Daschle are in bed with the Corn Ethanol industry. Obama supports tariffs on imported sugar ethanol and subsidies for Corn ethanol. It's pork fools! I agree with getting off foreign oil, but Brazil (sugar cane based ethanol) is no whacked out country like Iran, Saudi Arabia, ... We need to drill, offer tax incentives for alternatives, and throw the rest of the kitchen sink at this problem. NYTimes editorial by Friedman supports setting a base price of $4.50 per gallon. This is probably the Obama solution, too. This may be OK for you Yuppies, but it'd kill the working poor! Get your heads out of your!!!

Posted by: Anonymous | June 23, 2008 6:23 PM | Report abuse

We no longer need to subsidise farmers with fake ethanol projects.ethanol only makers sense if its your own farmers your subsidising, otherwise were being ripped off forced to pay more than we have to for less go juice. By Federal law! Now we need the food. In fact backyard gardens are the new vouge.
Its more sensible to make diesel fuel from coal, electricty from nuclear, and use corn for for food plastics ect.

Posted by: Will Blake | June 23, 2008 6:01 PM | Report abuse below:

Comment from Arianna Huffington featured in NYT blog regarding mainstream media responsibility:

"If we're going to honor accountability and transparency," she said, "we can never ever sell our independence for access, because that is what has happened to far too many in the old media."

Posted by: AzynAm247 | June 23, 2008 5:59 PM | Report abuse

Ok, duh.

How can you fault the guy for representing the State of Illinois? He supports the economy of his constituents.

Ethanol is clearly not the answer, but it does sound reasonable that it can be a bridge to other biofuels. It's better than drilling away all of our natural resources.

Posted by: Susan | June 23, 2008 5:54 PM | Report abuse

McCain's solution - "Let's drill for more oil!"

Hello??'s the dependency on oil that
is the problem.

Also, it's non-farmers, non-construction workers who have been buying the large gas guzzling trucks and SUVs. "Barry" isn't responsible for that.

Posted by: AzynAm247 | June 23, 2008 5:38 PM | Report abuse

"McCain has been scrutinized for most of those 25 years."

Umm..No. He's gotten a free ride from the media for the past 3 to 4 months on his flip flops on issues and gaffes. He's basically sucked up to the media with all those BBQs he invited them to over the years. The media is rewarding him for such "kindness" by falling asleep at the wheel and being the lazy sacks that they are.

I just want fair, closely examined, accurate and balanced..not lopsided crap like the NYT, the Wash. Post and the rest of the mainstream media usually puts outs.

McCain = I'll repeat what I mentione din a previous WaPo blog..ghoulish..e.g. New Orleans speech.

Posted by: AzynAm247 | June 23, 2008 5:34 PM | Report abuse

ethanol.. starve people so you can drive an a bigger car.

nice values there, barry.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 23, 2008 4:44 PM | Report abuse

"25 years of McCain's record to scrutinize but the mainstream media decides to target and attack the Democratic nominee who's actually trying to find alternative fuels."

McCain has been scrutinized for most of those 25 years. Obama for how long? Two or three?

Posted by: CH | June 23, 2008 4:43 PM | Report abuse

It's obvious that we need a broad based program to increase energy alternatives and conservation in this country. Obama seems to be more of a pick and choose man, as if government has a good track record of choosing economic winners in any field.

Raising CAFE standards, research investment and seed money for alternative energies and supporting the established sources of nuclear electrical generation and further exploitation of domestic fossil fuels are a common sense way to approach this problem.

While drilling alone may not solve our energy needs, it's a cinch that government regulations will not.

Posted by: Ed | June 23, 2008 4:16 PM | Report abuse

Corn based ethanol is dumb for a number of reasons:
It displaces food crops that will be needed more and more to feed the very hungry world.
Both our food and our fuel crops will be subject to the climate, drought and floods.
Corn based ethanol is not an energy efficient fuel - it has about the same carbon foot print as oil when BTU output is measured and when the entire process for growing and refining and distribution is factored in.
Oil delivers 42 gallons of crude in a barrel.
Oil delivers 22 gallons of gas to a barrel of oil.
Despite replacing the 22 gallons of gas with ethanol you still need to produce that barrel to refine jet fuel and diesel, etc. Shall we just throw away the gas from the refining process or 51.4% of the barrel.
Read why the ethanol and the no drilling crowd is willing to sacrifice our economy to achieve their goal of resolving the as yet unproved man made global warming.
Read about the left's hidden agenda and the job stream that can come from drilling for oil, and how we have have both oil and renewable energy at:

Posted by: Ken Moyes | June 23, 2008 3:43 PM | Report abuse

Ethanol. The Car Killer.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 23, 2008 3:42 PM | Report abuse

Well, McCain isn't running on a "holier than thou" platform and claiming he's going to change politics as we know it. Obama is.

Posted by: Think about it | June 23, 2008 3:37 PM | Report abuse

Alec MacGillis = right winger, Conservative, Republican, Neocon

Posted by: AzynAm247 | June 23, 2008 3:29 PM | Report abuse

Fair, but "flies in the face" seems a bit much. Wouldn't "contradicts" be more appropriate?

Posted by: Anonymous | June 23, 2008 3:06 PM | Report abuse

25 years of McCain's record to scrutinize but the mainstream media decides to target and attack the Democratic nominee who's actually trying to find alternative fuels. If Obama changes his policy on ethanol, then he's a flip flopper, but if McCain flips flops on issues, its non-news and doesn't get reported at all.

Posted by: AzynAm247 | June 23, 2008 2:36 PM | Report abuse

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