"Ethanol Man" vs. "Ozone Man"

How do I know that the 2008 Presidential campaign is proceeding far too rapidly? I'm no fat cat, and yet I have already received a fundraising letter --from Barack Obama.

Climate change is the most important issue to me, and so that's what I'm looking for as I rip open this missive. There it is, in the fifth sentence. "We have seen what our oil dependence has done to the price of our gas and heat; to our climate and our planet; to the very safety and security of our nation." Not bad!

But my enthusiasm begins to fade as I scan the letter to see what he intends to do about our oil dependence. "I have a plan supported by Democrats and Republicans that would raise the fuel standards of our cars for the first time in decades, create an entire ethanol infrastructure in this country and make America independent of Middle East oil by 2025."

Raise the fuel standards on our cars? By now just about everyone agrees on that. An entire ethanol infrastructure? That sounds to me like pandering to Iowa corn farmers. Making ethanol from corn may have some limited transitional usefulness, but corn is a very inefficient source of biofuel. We'll do much better when we perfect the technology for making ethanol from sources such as agricultural waste and switchgrass. Using corn, besides being inefficient, will put upward pressure on food prices. Obama gives no details of his ethanol scheme, but you can bet that more ethanol from Iowa's corn farmers is Plan A.

"You can't just read this letter," my wife complains. "Go to his website!" I do, and I'm not getting any happier. Once again I see pitches for higher auto fuel standards and more ethanol, with no specifics on what kind of ethanol. In addition, I see a tax break for American automakers if they will produce more hybrid cars and a plea for research to develop a clean-burning fuel from coal. Higher fuel standards? Ethanol? Clean coal? With not one word about wind and solar power? Most of it sounds very similar to President Bush's energy policy, which largely caters to special interests. I will for the moment think of Obama as "Ethanol Man," although I'm sure many others will be vying for that title as they journey to Des Moines.

To get some bold and courageous ideas on how to combat climate change, you need to listen to Al Gore, whom the elder George Bush once derided as "Ozone Man." In a speech I attended last fall at New York University, Gore advocated eliminating all payroll taxes and replacing them with "pollution taxes," which is an appealing way of saying carbon taxes, including higher gasoline taxes. Gore correctly contends that this change would take away taxes that discourage job creation and replace them with taxes that discourage the destruction of our climate. It wouldn't be an easy sell. He might need to add an extra tax break for people with no access to public transportation, but not a big enough break to give SUV drivers as cheap a ride as they get now.

Being President in these challenging times won't be easy. Maybe Gore feels he can afford to take a bold and courageous stand only because he is not running for President -- yet.

But you know, Al, we once had a President who had appeared in an Oscar-winning movie. That would be Ronald Reagan, who was in 1943's This is the Army, which won the Academy Award for best score of a musical. C'mon, Al, if Ronnie can do it, so can you, particularly after your triumphant night at the Oscars. The convenient truth is that your star is rising at just the right time.