Among the flurry of action -- or inaction -- on renewable energy bills in the last days of the state's legislative session comes a striking but largely unheralded statement of policy from the state of California. Last week, Governor Brown signed into law a bill that excludes corn-derived ethanol fuel from the state's Alternative and Renewable Fuel and
Vehicle Technology Program.
Assembly Bill 523, authored by Republican assembly member David Valadao, excludes ethanol made from the edible parts of corn from any loans, grants or incentives included as part of the alternative fuel program. Ethanol from stalks, husks, cobs and other non-edible ag waste isn't affected by the law.
It's an interesting law because ethanol production from corn is more or less a political third rail in many other parts of the country, especially the midwestern states where much of the nation's corn is grown. Corn ethanol has long been criticized for consuming as much or more energy to produce than it provides, and for pushing the retail price of corn higher when increasing numbers of people are hungry.
That last criticism is the rationale Valadao offered for his bill, but a look at a list of the bill's supporters offers a bit of nuance. In addition to predictable endorsements from the Sierra Club and the Union of Concerned Scientists, AB 523 had heavy support from California's agricultural sector. High corn prices don't benefit California agriculture, as relatively few farmers here grow corn. Instead, farmers here generally buy corn as feed for livestock, meaning that high prices due to ethanol production cut into their bottom lines. AB 523's endorsers thus included cattle ranchers, dairy producers, and poultry and egg farmers: a politically powerful force in California, especially in Valadao's very conservative San Joaquin Valley district. Politics makes strange bedfellows, and so, at least in California, does corn.