Columns » Warwick Sabin

Farm-raised fix

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In recent years, it has been the conservatives proposing radical ideas that serve their ideology at the expense of the average American. From the Medicare prescription drug reform to the privatization of Social Security to the massive tax cuts that have plunged the nation deeper into debt, common-sense realities are ignored for the sake of an abstract agenda.

But now some progressives are pushing their own ill-considered solution to our dependence on foreign oil: a significant increase in the tax on gasoline.

“Only if the total price of gasoline is brought into the $3.50-to-$4-per-gallon range — and kept there — will large numbers of Americans demand plug-in hybrid cars that run on biofuels like ethanol,” wrote Thomas Friedman in his New York Times column last week. “When large numbers of Americans do that, U.S. automakers will move quickly down the innovation curve.”

Friedman’s intentions are admirable, because we know that our absolute reliance on petroleum for our energy needs has three debilitating effects. First, it weakens our hand in diplomatic relations with countries that supply us with oil. With some of those countries strategically connected with what has become our biggest national security concern, we cannot continue to undermine ourselves in this way.

Second, the lack of energy autonomy perches the U.S. economy on a single precarious pillar. If the supply of oil is disrupted, the entire system will be affected, with devastating results.

Finally, fossil fuel consumption is having serious effects on the environment, as much as some people would like to deny it. We pay for this in the form of degraded natural resources, public health costs and the consequences of climate change.

But Friedman’s policy prescription doesn’t take the real world into account. The immediate impact of a drastic gas tax hike in Arkansas, for instance, would be catastrophic to average citizens. What would be their short-term options?

There is barely any viable public transportation in the state, so giving up our cars is not a realistic possibility. And even if everyone could afford to quickly modify or trade in their vehicles to use biofuels (which is a pipe dream), how would the automobile manufacturers and parts suppliers meet the production demands? And where would all of the biofuel suddenly come from?

In reality, most Arkansans would have to pay for the more expensive gas and cut back on other essentials (like food and home heating), just as some have to do in order to afford prescription drugs under the latest clumsy Medicare changes.

However, there is a better way to approach the problem, and it happens to make a whole lot of sense for Arkansas.

Instead of creating artificial demand through hardship, our state and federal governments can encourage a stable transition to biofuels through tax credits to consumers, car manufacturers, biofuel producers and energy distributors.

After all, state and federal tax credits are what jump-started the biofuel industry in Arkansas in the first place. A biodiesel incentive passed by the Arkansas legislature less than a year ago, combined with a federal program that went into effect last year, led directly to the opening of the first major biodiesel production facility in the state, which started operations this week.

Called Patriot Biofuels, it actually creates a fuel entirely from soybeans that will run a standard diesel engine. “We’re not even calling ourselves an alternative fuel,” said Tommy Foltz, the president of the company. “We make diesel, we just don’t make it out of petroleum.”

The tax credits now allow Foltz’s operation to sell its fuel at a price comparable to regular diesel. Knowing that, I eventually would like to switch to a car that ran on biodiesel, if I could afford it. That’s where the consumer tax credits come into play, giving all of us a financial incentive to make the change for the good of our country. Add a tax credit for the automakers to meet the new consumer demand for biofuel vehicles, and the cycle begins again as the biofuel makers ramp up production.

If this caught on, just imagine what it would mean for our state’s agricultural community, which is staring at the abyss as subsidies and import tariffs are cut. A native food supply is just as important as a domestic energy supply, for similar economic and national security reasons, and the biofuel market could ensure that Arkansas farmers stay in business.

What a wonderful thing it could be to use our abundant land to literally grow our own energy and agricultural self-sufficiency, and reduce carbon emissions in the process.

It also potentially would bring the right-wing anti-taxers and the left-wing enviros together on common ground — in this case, the real world.

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