Rupert Cornwell: Out Of America

With petrol supplies running low, the Bush administration is jumping on the ethanol bandwagon. But this supposed wonder fuel derived from grain is barely making a dent within the inefficient US motor industry
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Others may prefer a day at Universal Studios, or getting into the beach culture down at Santa Monica, or searching (usually fruitlessly) for stars in Beverly Hills and Bel Air. But for me, an unbeatable Los Angeles experience is a visit to the Petersen Automotive Museum on Wilshire Boulevard. The place is a shrine to the car, in that endlessly vast open-air theatre of the car that is the City of Angels.

They always run a fascinating special exhibit, highlighting how the automobile is woven into the culture of America, and into the culture of LA in particular. When I dropped by last week, the show featured convertibles. These days the ubiquity of air conditioning and the emphasis on functionality and practicality in cars have made the convertible, with its high maintenance and insurance costs, a gravely endangered species. But in the 1940s, '50s and '60s they were hugely popular, and the Petersen museum has some wonderfully over-the-top models on display.

If like me you are old enough to have watched The Cisco Kid on TV, you will remember Leo Carrillo, who played the Kid's trail partner and sidekick Pancho. Carrillo's custom-made 1947 Chrysler Town and Country is quite magnificent, all shiny metal at the front, wood at the back, and painted a pinkish ochre to match the palomino pony he rode in the show. On the front is mounted the head of a steer. In the finest Hollywood style, the beast's eyes light up at night, and when you honk the horn, it bellows like a bull.

Alas, such preposterous vehicles are no longer to be seen on the jammed freeways of LA. These latter never cease to amaze me, even though Washington where I live comes a close second in every league table of America's most congested urban areas. LA freeways are liquid rivers that flow 24 hours a day – on rare occasions at breakneck speed, but usually at a snail's pace, often grinding to a complete standstill before creaking back into motion in a never ending cycle of frustration.

"Where are all these people going?" you wonder at first in bafflement, as you sit immobilised on a 10-lane highway on a supposedly business-traffic-free Sunday afternoon. Then you realise a central truth of Los Angeles and southern California: that the freeways are living things, where the cars and the people that drive them are one. And if you are a worrier like me, you think of pollution, soaring petrol prices and precarious crude oil supplies. And you wonder, how much longer can this life go on?

Which brings me – albeit about as slowly and laboriously as you navigate the intersection of Interstate 110 with the Santa Monica freeway – to the current obsession with ethanol, the grain alcohol derived from corn (maize to us), as a substitute for the petrol without which the living rivers of cars would die.

Basically, ethanol is being pushed by the Bush administration as a quick and painless fix to America's energy crisis. More than half the oil consumed by the US is imported, and half the country's oil usage is on transport: planes, trains and trucks, but above all cars. But forget about such common-sense steps as higher mandatory fuel economy standards for cars, whose absence happens to be one reason why the inefficient US car manufacturers are in such dire straits. Somehow, any such proposal always fails to make it through Congress.

And perish the thought of an increase in the federal petrol tax, currently just 18 cents (9p) a gallon here. Every one-cent increase would raise $2bn (£1bn). Thus a rise in the "gas" tax of 50 cents, the most widely suggested increase, would encourage drivers to drive less and concentrate Detroit's mind on greater fuel efficiency. It would also provide an extra $100bn or so to carry out urgently needed repairs to the US highway system – or have you forgotten that terrifying bridge collapse on Interstate 35 in Minneapolis earlier this month? No way, however, says the Bush crowd, for whom the slightest tax rise is an ideological outrage.

So they peddle ethanol and, prodded by the realities of the electoral calendar, so do most of those aspiring to succeed Bush in the White House in January 2009. Recent readers of this column will be aware of the Republican straw poll a fortnight ago in Iowa, the state where the first presidential caucuses take place. They should rename it the corn poll or, better still, the "fuel-on-the-cob" poll.

Iowa lies in the heart of the midwestern farm belt. Until recently it was was most famous for its pigs. Now corn is the name of the game. Iowa fancies itself as ethanol's Kuwait, and woe betide the candidate who does not promise to devote his or her presidency to furthering that goal.

Listen to some ethanol advocates and you gain the impression that Iowa is about to turn itself into a giant factory of the stuff. As it is, national production is scheduled to double to 7.5 billion gallons by 2012. Bush has called for 35 billion gallons of renewable fuels (primarily ethanol) by 2017, while the Senate this summer passed an energy bill setting a target of 36 billion gallons by 2020.

All this is splendid news for the Iowa farmers who have seen the value of their land soar, and for farmers of other crops such as wheat and soya. The price of their produce has soared as land is converted to corn (or, rather, ethanol). But it's been grim for anyone seeking to get into the farming business, not to mention every grocery shopper in the land. The ethanol obsession has pushed up shelf prices of grain, meat and dairy products.

And just suppose that Senate target is to be met. Some 90 million acres of corn would be needed to produce 36 billion gallons of ethanol. The entire 2006 US corn crop, most of which went to food and feedstuffs, occupied 80 million acres. Where is the rest to come from? Not Brazil, to be sure. Although Brazilian ethanol (made from sugar) is far cheaper, it is blocked by a 54 cent per gallon tax. The only solution would be to open up vast tracts of virgin land. But the environmental costs, in terms of fertiliser use and the loss of forests and wetlands, can only be guessed at. All this, of course, is blithely ignored by both Congress and the President.

Finally, a couple of other sobering facts on the great ethanol cop-out. Barely one in 50 of the 238 million cars on America's roads is equipped to use it. And for all the talk, it's still precious hard to find. I've yet to notice a petrol station here offering E85, as the 85 per cent ethanol, 15 per cent petrol fuel is called. In all of California, just four stations sell it. You've about as much chance of finding one as of seeing Leo Carrillo's convertible on the Pasadena freeway.