Now when the weather permits travel more and more Americans travel on ethanol fuels. Your tax dollars support that. The big tax compromise between President Obama and Republicans in Congress preserves tax subsidies and other measures supporting corn ethanol.

Yet decades of help for ethanol have never quite erased the doubts of skeptics who question its benefits. This morning, we begin a series on ethanol by checking some of the more dramatic claims about it. Now, when you hear this sound...

(Soundbite of buzzer)

INSKEEP:'ll know you've just heard a claim that goes too far. Here's Frank Morris of Harvest Public Media.

FRANK MORRIS: Ethanol may seem modern, but people throughout Appalachia have been making it for hundreds of years.

Professor BILL KOVARIK (Communications, Radford University): Well, we're known for our moonshine industry - very well known for our moonshine industry. It is still flourishing.

MORRIS: Radford University Professor Bill Kovarik says ethanol is, first and foremost, a way to make corn more valuable. More than a century ago, Henry Ford built cars to run on it with just that in mind.

Prof. KOVARIK: So, you could replace the transportation income that farmers used to have by growing the fuel for the cars, instead of growing horses and feed.

MORRIS: Prohibition killed that idea. But the farm crisis, oil shocks and environmental concerns revived it. Lawmakers gave companies a tax credit, currently 45 cents a gallon, more than $5 billion a year to blend ethanol with gasoline. The EPA forces blenders to use billions of gallons a year. And there's a high tariff on imports, to boot. Triple support. But, according to ethanol industry ads, the payback is huge.

(Soundbite of ethanol ad)

Unidentified Announcer: Fueling the economy and nearly 400,000 jobs.

(Soundbite of buzzer)

Professor DAVID SWENSON (Economics, Iowa State University): The number of ethanol jobs isn't as many as people would think it was. It's probably in the territory of 30,000 to 35,000.

MORRIS: David Swenson at Iowa State University doesn't count farm jobs in his equation. But he does say that ethanol spreads money across the Midwest, and even all the way back to Washington, in a way. Ethanol uses a lot of corn, which makes it and other row crops more valuable. These days, grain never gets cheap enough to trigger federal price support payments to farmers, and that used to happen all the time.

So, back to the ad.

(Soundbite of ethanol ad)

Unidentified Announcer): ...turning everyday abundant, renewable ingredients into clean, sustainable energy.

(Soundbite of buzzer)

MORRIS: Well, farmers are growing a lot more corn, but ethanol's voracious appetite keeps supply tight and prices high. Ethanol does burn much cleaner than gasoline - no soot - but producing creates pollution, and sucks up lots of water, which muddies the environmental benefit. Of course, ethanol boosters aren't the only ones talking.

Professor DAVID PIMENTEL (Agricultural Science, Cornell University): We're importing oil to produce this ethanol.

MORRIS: Professor David Pimentel at Cornell adds all the energy used in growing corn, the fertilizer, the tractor fuel, tractor manufacturing, everything, plus energy used by ethanol plants, and calculates that making a gallon of ethanol, uses the equivalent of about one-and-a-third gallons of oil. His first study came out 30 years ago. His findings haven't changed.

The problem is that Pimentel uses what many researchers believe are outdated or worst-case scenarios for growing corn and producing ethanol, factoring in dramatic technical advances in both fields. Most researchers figure that corn ethanol now delivers an energy gain of about 40 percent.

Prof. KOVARIK: But that's not really good enough. What we need is something in the neighborhood of 12 to 1, not, you know, 1 to 1.4.

MORRIS: Bill Kovarik, again. He says that will come only after solving wickedly complex scientific, logistic and financial problems to make ethanol from grass, trees or something other than corn.

Prof. KOVARIK: The ethanol - corn ethanol industry - is not really a long-term solution to oil dependence. It's just an octane booster.

MORRIS: Because ethanol's safer than banned gasoline additives like lead, benzene or MTBE. So, corn ethanol does create domestic energy, and jobs, but not as much, or as many as backers had hoped. It has helped some farmers get off other subsidies, and improved the rural economy.

Question is: does it deserve a multi-billion dollar tax credit, on top of a tariff, on top of a huge and growing mandate to use it?

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.

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