The great ethanol caper

It was quite the kick in the pants for the ethanol industry on Wednesday – four major newspapers published editorials calling for an end to the federal tax credit and tariff for corn ethanol.

The subsidies were called a waste of tax dollars by the Washington Post, “nonsensical” and “a boondoggle” by the Kansas City Star, “wasteful and unnecessary tax breaks” for “a dubious fuel” by the New York Times, and “a terrible mistake” by the Chicago Tribune.

The timing (and similarity) of the editorials didn’t go unnoticed on Twitter – many people pointed out the coincidence. But this tweet from the Minnesota Corn Growers yesterday afternoon took things a bit further:

Now – I’m fairly certain this was intended to be a joke. But I also know that people can have some pretty wild ideas about the media’s ability to engage in far-reaching conspiracies. So as an academic exercise, let’s explore a little more deeply.

First – as someone who’s worked in the newspaper business, I can assure you that you’ll have much better luck getting the cat to slow-dance with the dog than you will getting two newspaper editorial boards to conspire with one another (and in the case of the New York Times and the Washington Post, you’ll also have a lot less scratching and biting).

Nevertheless, I contacted the editorial boards from the four papers to find out what drove their decision to publish on Wednesday.

Barbara Shelly, editorial writer for the Kansas City Star:

At least on our part, the timing of our editorial was purely coincidental. One of our editorial writers mentioned at our morning meeting that we might want to run an editorial on the ethanol-related tax credit and tariff that are set to expire. It’s a subject we’ve been interested in as an editorial board and write about with some frequency. As it happened, we had an open spot today and printed the editorial. To my knowledge, we haven’t been contacted by anyone urging an editorial one way or the other.

Bruce Dold, editorial page editor for the Chicago Tribune:

We’ve been opponents of ethanol subsidies for several years. This editorial was prompted by the likelihood of a legislative effort to extend the subsidies before it expires. The editorial board discussed the editorial before the tax bill agreement was announced. We learned on Tuesday that the subsidies or a tariff extension might be included in the tax bill. That did prompt me to run the editorial today rather than later in the week or next week, so it would have impact.

Dold adds:

You’re right, the idea of coordination is absurd, but for the record, we didn’t discuss this with other editorial boards.

I haven’t heard back from the Post or the Times yet, but if I do, I’ll include their responses.

One thought on “The great ethanol caper

  1. Clearly, the compromise tax bill in the Senate was the stimulus for these ob/eds all coming out at once. But it is also clear that opposition to biofuels is both well organized and well financed, and these opinion pieces don’t occur in a vacuum. I know — I have been to a few Editorial Board meetings myself.