Ethanol’s Food Vs. Fuel Dilemma

on February 06, 2012 at 11:15 AM

After 30 years of government largesse that would have made even Nancy Pelosi blush, Congress in December let expire the roughly $6 billion annual subsidy for corn ethanol. That’s bad news for the big refiners that were paid 45¢ for each gallon of corn ethanol they blended into gasoline supplies. But it’s good news for those worried about the “food-fuel dilemma” when the demand for corn to make ethanol has been raising the price of some foods. Not so fast. It turns out that while the subsidies are gone, U.S. law still requires oil refiners to blend corn ethanol into fuel — some 12.5 billion gallons this year and at least 15 billion gallons by 2015. That’s still a small portion compared with the 133 billion gallons of gasoline that the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates Americans will burn this year, but nonetheless enough to keep upward pressure on corn prices. That law needs to change, argues Jeremy Grantham — who oversees nearly $100 billion at his Boston investment firm, is known for calling both the dotcom and housing bubbles and is an environmentalist to boot. “It [U.S. ethanol policy] is truly diabolical,” he says.