Smile Politely

Not the Republican You Might Think

As energy prices continue to put the screw down on America, its politicians continue to fling about questionable statements concerning energy policy and push even more dubious legislation.

Where does Rep. Tim Johnson stand?

Johnson probably wasn’t chanting “drill baby, drill” during the Republican National Convention. He’s not a global warming naysayer. He doesn’t want to drill in Artic National Wildlife Refuge. He subscribes to the Midwestern orthodoxy on ethanol. He wants to stick it to OPEC and energy speculators. Johnson is also a fan of the nuclear energy churned out by Exelon (who are also fans of him).

Johnson hasn’t relied heavily on oil companies to finance his campaigns, and has generally supported legislation geared toward fostering alternative energy. He’s even gotten the nod from the Sierra Club.

Like many a Midwestern politician, Johnson wants to keep the ethanol train on track in hopes its destination is somewhere cleaner and less oil-dependent. But how green is this fuel?

Since 1978, fuel producers have been subsidized to blend ethanol with conventional gasoline. Currently fuel producers get a 47-cent tax credit subsidy for every gallon they put out, up from 40 cents when the subsidy was first introduced. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, requires fuel producers to include 21 billion gallons of ethanol in their fuel by 2022.

Ethanol has been heavily criticized that it produces little energy, uses too much water and aggravates food prices.

Johnson might find himself locking horns with the head of his own party. In a speech in Arlington, Virginia Republican nominee John McCain remarked “Corn-based ethanol, thanks to the money and influence of lobbyists, has been a case study in the law of unintended consequences.” He went on to blast the current energy policy that subsidizes crop producers while slapping a hefty tariff on Brazilian ethanol that could reduce the costs at the pump.

Brazil is the world’s second largest ethanol producer, generating over five billion gallons in 2007. The US is in the lead with nearly 6.5 billion gallons. However, little of the Brazilian-made fuel is finding it’s way into the tanks of Americans due to a 54-cent tariff making widespread importation of the fuel unfeasible.

Johnson adamantly supports the tariff, the subsidy, and the mandate, according to his press secretary. He claims that ethanol is helping the US burn cleaner fuel, become energy independent and shave money off the price at the pump.

Because corn (the main ingredient of ethanol) requires a relatively high amount of nitrogen to produce en masse, much of the chemical ends up being washed into local rivers and streams. Over the years it has made its way into the gulf of Mexico creating a massive “dead zone” the size of New Jersey where virtually no aquatic life can exist. An article in the March 18 issue of “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” suggests that if the US is going to meet its goal of producing 15 billion gallons of ethanol by 2022 it would likely increase nitrogen runoff into the gulf by 10 to 15 percent.

Ethanol has also been blamed for causing food prices to soar. USDA projections foresee more corn being diverted from exports toward ethanol as other countries, such as Brazil and Argentina, step up production to meet world demand. Additionally, a recently leaked World Bank report obtained by the Guardian fingers the rise of biofuels as the primary culprit behind rising grain costs.

In May, 24 Senate Republicans wrote a letter to the Enviromental Protection Agency (which is responsible for administering the mandate) asking to rescind the ethanol requirement.

Phil Bloomer, Johnson’s press secretary, contends that opponents of the fuel (notably food producers) have actively worked to spread “disinformation” about the fuel. Additionally, he says that the technology behind the fuel continues to improve and has saved consumers money at the pump.

Johnson has accepted nearly $10,000 in campaign contributions from the political action committee of agri-giant Archer Daniels Midland — a company that has clearly benefited from the ethanol boom.

Johnson also supports the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act. The bill would place a limited allowance on how much carbon polluters could emit that would progressively be lowered.

According to the EPA analysis of the bill, the legislation could cause nuclear energy could jump by 150 percent by 2050 from 2005 levels. Environmental and public interest groups contend that the bill would provide billions in subsidies to the nuclear industry.

This is fine with Johnson, who supports nuclear energy as a viable option. It’s also fine with Exelon, which has the largest fleet of nuclear power plants in the country.

Exelon is also fine with Johnson. The company’s political action committee has directed about $7,000 each election cycle to Johnson’s campaign since 2002.

And Johnson is fine with Exelon. “Exelon has proven itself to be a safe reliable nuclear energy company,” says Bloomer.

The PAC has also shelled out $1.5 million this year alone, and has actively lobbied Congress regarding this bill.

One of the most bandied about solutions to the energy crises is to throw open the doors to domestic oil exploration and drilling, despite figures from the Bush Administration’s own energy department that suggest doing so will do little.

But not so fast, say congressional Democrats who point out that oil companies are sitting on millions of acres of public land.

Two bills would have told oil companies to use it or lose it.

HR 6515 would have opened up the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska to competitive leasing. Additionally it would have denied news leases from any company not “diligently developing” land already in their possession. HR 6251 had a similar “use it or lose it” provision.

Johnson voted against both. Both failed.

Phil Bloomer, Johnson’s press secretary, describes the laws as “superfelous,” and a “publicity-grabbing stunt.” Bloomer contends that there are already laws on the books that require oil companies to use the land leased to them.

The Democrats charge that the oil industry is completely sitting on its hands isn’t exactly true.

But could we litigate our way to energy independence? That’s what “NOPEC” legislation Johnson voted for aims to do. The bill would subject OPEC, the world’s largest price-fixing oil cartel to U.S. trust-busting laws. Under the law, OPEC member states would no longer be able to hide behind soveriegn immunity in US courts.

The bill passed the House and is being considered by the Senate. The White House has stated that it isn’t sympathetic to legislation, as it will almost certainly irk relations with OPEC member states.

Politics aside, how would this bill work anyway? How would you make US anti-trust legislation extend beyond our shores?

“I don’t know the answer to this,” replies Bloomer.

Johnson also voted for a bill that would direct the Future Trading Commission to crack down on energy speculators, who have been fingered as the culprits behind high gas prices.

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