Ethanol: Law, Economics and Politics
To reduce U.S. dependence on oil imports, in 2007 Congress enacted the Energy Independence and Security Act, which set a target of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel being produced by 2022. The primary biofuel produced in the U.S. is ethanol, the vast majority of which is made from corn.
A useful place to learn more about the range of issues concerning ethanol is “Ethanol: Law, Economics and Politics,” a 2008 cost-benefit analysis by the Brookings Institution. The report’s findings include:
- If all U.S. corn production were transformed into ethanol, it would replace only a fraction of our petroleum consumption. Estimates range from 3.5% to 12%.
- While ethanol is often portrayed as a path to energy security, corn yields can be highly volatile.
- Improvements in yields peaked in the early 1960s and has since been decreasing. The current rate of increase is not sufficient to keep up with growing food demand.
- The U.S. produces 60% of world corn exports. Diverting this to ethanol production would have significant international consequences, yet do little to increase our energy security.
Tags: cars, fossil fuels
Note to instructor: The suggested assignments are designed for flexibility. They can be used in whole or part and can be adapted to a particular task -- for example, the newswriting assignments could be applied to the writing of the headline, the lead, the nut graph or the full story. Material from the assignments could also be combined with other material, for example, in the writing of a background, feature or local-angle story.
Read the Brookings Institution study titled "Ethanol: Law, Economics and Politics."
- Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
- Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
Read the issue-related New York Times article titled "U.S. Unlikely to Use the Ethanol Congress Ordered."
- If you were to rewrite the article based on knowledge of the Brookings Institution, what key changes would you make?
- Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
- Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.