A viewpoint by Thomas D. Elias: Davis picks his battleground: It's ethanol

August 21, 2001

For many months, Gov. Gray Davis has made no secret of his contempt and disgust for President George W. Bush and the energy decisions of Bush's administration.

Davis could have chosen to challenge Bush and his energy company cronies by sending National Guard troops to seize power plants during the time of rolling blackouts last winter and spring.

Davis thought better of that, despite his vocal threats, recognizing Bush's presidential power to nationalize the guard from under him and hand the plants back to generating companies Davis often calls "pirates" and "buccaneers."

But the governor continued to seethe, especially after Bush and the federal Environmental Protection Agency he controls refused to exempt California from a requirement that most gasoline in smoggy areas contain an oxygenate additive designed to make the fuel burn more efficiently.


Now Davis has chosen to make ethanol the ground for his ongoing battle with Bush, with their fight to play out in appellate courts and not at any power plant gates, for no matter how much Davis argued, no matter how many facts smog experts marshaled to prove the requirement is excess baggage for California, where refineries already produce clean-burning gasoline without adding oxygenates, Bush refused to budge. Many of Davis' closest advisers contend Bush is kowtowing to big campaign contributors such as the Archer Daniel Midlands Corp., which produces more of the oxygenating additive ethanol than anyone else.

This fight has urgency because under a combination of the Bush-controlled EPA's June ruling and Davis' own ban on the oxygenating additive MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether), which takes effect late next year, California will soon need almost 1 billion gallons of ethanol yearly, supposedly as a clean air tactic.

But evidence abounds that ethanol, derived from corn, actually may not produce cleaner air. Cars that burn it produce significantly more oxides of nitrogen than when they use plain gasoline, afflicting heavy smog areas with both ozone-containing brown haze and disease-causing airborne particulates.

Roland Hwang, a policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, calls the oxygenate mandate "onerous and obsolete," given today's tough standards for refining clean gasoline. He could have added obdurate, to describe Bush's stubborn insistence on the mandate in the face of massive evidence it is counter-productive.

What's more, California grows only enough corn to produce about 6 million gallons of ethanol yearly. So if the mandate stands, this state would have to import huge quantities from Midwestern states such Iowa and Illinois, driving up the price of gasoline here as much as 50 cents per gallon — if sufficient ethanol even becomes available.

The only alternative might be to bring thousands of shiploads yearly from Brazil, also at high cost.

This encouragement of ethanol was exactly what Bush promised corn-growing Iowa while campaigning there before that state's critically important caucuses in early 2000. So Davis will take him to court, a gantlet he has not yet thrown down in the electric power crisis.

The current oxygenate mandate "is a straitjacket that will drive up gas prices while increasing air pollution," Davis said. "The potential for harm to Californians, both economically and environmentally, leaves me no choice but to fight back with guns blazing."

Not accidentally, this fight is also terrific for his reelection campaign. Davis is under extreme fire for the long-term electricity contracts his power crisis advisers negotiated last winter. The state this summer lost tens of millions of dollars by buying power high and selling it low. Never mind that Davis and his aides contend those contracts are the main reason power prices have dropped precipitously since last winter; no one likes tax money lost in a business deal.

But ethanol lets Davis play the consumer advocate again, one of his favorite roles. He essentially can dare would-be Republican opponents like Secretary of State Bill Jones, ex-Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and financier William Simon to back him against a president of their party or risk being labeled anti-California lap dogs of the big ethanol interests who may be about to become the newest "out of state buccaneers" in the governor's rhetoric.

It's a perfect spot for Davis, who is in the right this time and badly needs to place the Republicans on the wrong side, or his poll numbers will continue to languish in the perilously low place where the power crisis put them.

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