WASHINGTON – Republicans generally stood by President Bush's call Tuesday for action on energy and the economy, but one pillar — boosting use and production of corn-based ethanol — is becoming an increasingly sticky point for some in the president's own party.
Once seen as a panacea to curing America's reliance on foreign fossil fuels, ethanol production now is taking blame from some corners for rising food prices around the globe. Critics say ethanol is gobbling up corn that otherwise would go toward food production, adding to the price crunch, and rising prices are hurting American consumers.
On Tuesday, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, announced she will introduce legislation to freeze a biofuel mandate required in a bill passed last year. Pushed by Democrats, the bill required a gradual, five-fold increase in ethanol production by 2022.
And Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla. — the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee — called on the EPA to institute "an immediate waiver from (biofuels) mandates."
He wants a review of the effects mandated ethanol production has had on the global food crisis. The waiver power was given to the EPA by Congress in last year's energy bill.
Inhofe warned, "People are starving to death because of this transfer from food to fuel. As the ranking member of the EPW committee, which has jurisdiction, I'm going to ask for an immediate waiver to stop this mandate."
But not everyone — including Bush — believes ethanol is strongly linked to rising food costs.
On Tuesday, Bush vouched for more ethanol, saying, "We're transitioning to a new era, by the way, a new era where we're going to have batteries in our cars that will power — you know, enable people to drive 40 miles on electricity. There's going to be more ethanol in the market, more alternative fuels. Our driving habits will change."
He later added: "The high price of gasoline is going to spur more investment in ethanol as an alternative to gasoline. And the truth of the matter is, it's in our national interest that we — our farmers, grow energy, as opposed to us purchasing energy from parts of the world that are unstable or may not like us."
But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed concern Monday that there is a link between the more ethanol and higher global food prices.
"Although we believe that while biofuels continue to be an extremely important piece of the alternative energy picture, obviously we want to make sure that it is not having an adverse affect. ... We think that it is not a large part of the problem, but it in fact may be a part of the problem, the ethanol debate," Rice told a gathering of the Peace Corps.
Politicians from corn-belt states like Iowa, Illinois and Nebraska are finding it difficult to embrace a freeze — partially because putting downward pressure on grain prices could hurt farmers — but a number of key Democrats from that same area have signaled they are open to the idea.
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois — the No. 2 Senate Democrat — on Monday said he was open to reviewing ethanol's effects at a press conference on the global food crisis, but said he is not calling for a freeze on the fuel.
"I think we ought to take an honest look at it. I've supported ethanol from the beginning. I've supported biofuel production," Durbin said. "The object of having homegrown fuel in America is a good goal. ... But we have to understand it's had an impact on food prices. And let's be honest about it, even in the corn belt. We better be honest about it."
But he also expressed some skepticism of ethanol's effect on the broader food market: "I can't imagine that using corn for ethanol in Illinois is going to raise the price of rice, which has happened dramatically around the world. So, let's take a look at this thing and play it out in an honest fashion."