Digging Deeper


Sign of the times: Ethanol divides the nation

At a gas station in Oklahoma, ethanol is clearly unwelcome. (Peggy Lowe/Harvest Public Media)
At a gas station in Oklahoma, ethanol is clearly unwelcome. (Peggy Lowe/Harvest Public Media)

Most people send home lovely photos from their out of town visits, pics showing the vistas they've hiked, cities they've enjoyed or family and friends they've visited.

But leave it to a couple of nerdy Harvest reporters to send a snapshot like the one you see here.

Greetings from, Norman, Okla., where the plains are as flat as a barn floor, everything is painted Sooner red and there's a lot of people who don't want corn in their gas.

Harvest reporter Abbie Swanson and I are here on a fellowship with the Institute for Justice and Journalism, being held at the University of Oklahoma's Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication. On our first night here, we were out walking and came upon the sign. I think we got a couple weird glances as we both took aim with our iPhones.

It just seemed so odd for us, reporters who work in the corn-growing states, to see any opposition to ethanol. In Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska, ethanol is most often seen as Midwestern manna, an alternative fuel that eats up the area's biggest crop by the billions of bushels.

But here in Oklahoma, the oil and gas industry is big business, bringing in $52 billion a year and creating one of every six jobs. The state's Republican senator, Tom Coburn, leads the fight against ethanol subsidies in Washington.

Coburn has railed against the $6 billion in subsidies ethanol receives, arguing that it's not sound economic or environmental policy. The use of so much corn for the fuel also helps drive food and livestock feed prices higher, he has said.

"Parochialism trumps the best interests of the nation," Coburn said in 2011 when one of his anti-ethanol efforts failed.

His critics from corn country disagree, of course, including Sen. Charles Grassley, the Republican from Iowa, one of the largest ethanol producing states:  "With conflicts in the Middle East and crude oil priced at $100 a barrel, we should be on the same side. Why would anyone prefer less domestic energy production??

Guess we won't share this photo with Grassley. And we'll be looking for some pretty photos of Norman through Thursday, when we return to corn country.

We want to hear from you: What's your take on the Renewable Fuels Standard? Click here to tell us your story.