WASHINGTON -- South Dakota corn growers mainly had profits in mind when they began investing millions of dollars to build a string of ethanol plants in their state several years ago. The plants would convert grain into a fuel additive, creating a new market for local corn and some added income from the processing.
Now, it turns out, there was another benefit: a bigger voice in Washington.
As congressional negotiators seek a compromise on the most far-reaching energy legislation in years, political pressure to help the ethanol industry in South Dakota and nearby states has emerged, unexpectedly, as the driving force for a deal, congressional aides say.
Separate energy measures passed by the House and Senate earlier this year run nearly 1,000 pages each and affect everything from oil and gas drilling on public lands to electricity deregulation. House and Senate conferees, meanwhile, are considering a raft of initiatives involving major fuel sources -- such as tax credits for an Alaska natural gas pipeline and fatter subsidies for cleaner-burning coal technologies.
But nothing evokes such strong passions as the provisions affecting ethanol. "Ethanol gives people who usually haven't had a constituency in energy a new interest in the issue," a Republican aide said.
A desire to help his state's fledgling ethanol industry has made passage of energy legislation a priority for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. He supervised the writing of a section in the Senate-passed energy bill requiring gasoline refiners to nearly triple use of ethanol by 2012. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., both from big corn states, also support the measure, as does President Bush.
But coming on the heels of a new $190 billion farm bill, the proposed government backing for yet another agricultural interest has ruffled some feathers. All four Democratic senators from California and New York oppose Daschle's initiative. They contend the mandate to use more ethanol could lead to higher gasoline prices in their states.
Their concerns have reopened a long-standing debate about how far the government should go to promote wider use of ethanol. First touted in the 1970s as a renewable, domestic alternative to foreign oil, ethanol has since gained ground as a fuel additive that can contribute to cleaner air.
But it has needed strong government support to maintain its foothold in the fuel market.
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