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THE LATEST USDA figures project that 1.5 billion bushels of corn will be used in ethanol production this year. That's up from 1.325 billion bushels last year. Corn used for ethanol is fast catching up to total corn exports, which are projected to be 2 billion bushels this year. The increase in ethanol production is good news for corn farmers and a bit of bad news for oil companies.

As more gallons of ethanol replace petroleum-based gasoline, the situation pits Big Oil against King Corn. Lobbyists on each side come armed with conflicting scientific reports about the efficiency, or inefficiency, of producing ethanol from corn. Too often, the cause of science has degraded into one side slinging mud at the other.

Of course we know who is on the pro-ethanol side. After ethanol cooperatives themselves, corn grower groups including the National Corn Growers Association and numerous regional and state corn grower groups all pitch in to the lobbying effort.

The influence of Big Oil is murkier, though. While company executives from giants such as Exxon and BP may speak directly to the issue, the petroleum industry uses more subtle channels that most people don't know about.

Just one of the backdoor organizations working in concert with big oil is self -described Libertarian “think tank” The Cato Institute. Under the banner of free-market advocacy, Cato has waged a vendetta against ethanol subsidies.

An odd coincidence is that Cato also has spoken out against tax breaks designed to encourage fuel-efficient car research in the auto industry. It makes me wonder what Cato has against reducing our dependence on petroleum. Could it have anything to do with the organization's founder and primary benefactor, Koch Industries? With revenue of about $40 billion last year, Koch is the largest privately held oil conglomerate in the world.

When every scientific study we read about ethanol energy efficiency seems to come from an organization with a vested interest, whom should we believe? Perhaps it is not important. Even if ethanol is a zero sum game on energy efficiency now, it seems logical that continued ethanol production can only improve efficiency in the future.

As oil gets harder to find and ethanol becomes a more viable business, the day may come when oil companies actually scramble to get into the ethanol business. Maybe then the bickering on ethanol efficiency will finally stop.

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