TEXT OF INTERVIEW
KAI RYSSDAL: Let me pick up on the theme John Dimsdale got us started with today — politicians and the lengths they’ll go to when things get economically uncomfortable. The governor of Texas played to type today. Perhaps with cause. Rick Perry asked the Bush administration for a break on ethanol. Specifically, he wants a partial waiver of the federal requirements for renewable fuels. Says they’re hurting his state…and contributing to the rise in global food prices. Joseph Romm’s a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Mr. Romm, good to have you with us.
JOSEPH ROMM: Great to be here.
RYSSDAL: Do you think Gov. Perry just said today what’s been on everyone’s mind? That it’s time to get out of this biofuels business?
ROMM: Well, I think that we’ve gone too far on corn ethanol. I think we now can see the real impact it’s having on food in the marketplace — around the world and at home. And I think we need to rethink the corn ethanol policy, absolutely.
RYSSDAL: What should we do then? Is the answer to cut this mandate for renewable fuels?
ROMM: Well, the mandate has two parts. It has a part for corn ethanol and then it has a part for this other type of ethanol called cellulosic ethanol, which is a developing technology. And right now we’re probably around 7 or 8 billion gallons of corn ethanol capacity, which is getting to be like a quarter of the entire corn crop is going to make fuel. And the 2007 energy bill requires a doubling.
RYSSDAL: So, we’re not even where we ought to be yet, right?
ROMM: Well, not under the law. So, if you think, you know, the impact on corn prices and then, indirectly, people plant more corn, they plant less soy and less wheat, so those prices go up, too. And, as you say, we’re about halfway to what the new law requires.
RYSSDAL: So what is the answer then?
ROMM: I think that people have to ask themselves what they are interested in. I think it is a mistake to turn food into fuel. And I think if you were to talk to most of the scientific community today, they would agree with that assessment. What we need to do is move over to plants that can be grown on marginal lands, or algae that don’t require a lot of fresh water and don’t require productive lands. That is the goal. And other alternative fuels. Biofuels are not the only possible alternative fuel. I mean, clearly, we need to get off of oil, though.
RYSSDAL: Do you think we should cut subsidies to farmers?
ROMM: Well, if we’re going to have the corn mandate . . . I mean, if you’re going to mandate that that corn has to be grown and sold as ethanol, I don’t . . . then obviously you’re going to drive up the price of corn. And I don’t understand why you would also have subsidies on top of that mandate. . . . It’s a mature industry. It’s not like people don’t know how to make corn ethanol.
RYSSDAL: In the final analysis, then, has the pursuit of ethanol done more harm than good, do you think?
ROMM: I think the pursuit of the mandate for corn ethanol, especially in the 2007 energy bill, does more harm than good. I think mandating cellulosic ethanol that doesn’t use a lot of energy, doesn’t interfere with food production and doesn’t cause a lot of greenhouse emissions, I think that makes sense.
RYSSDAL: Joseph Romm at the Center for American Progress. Mr. Romm, thanks so much for your time.
ROMM: My pleasure.
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