Watch CBSN Live

One News Organization, Two Views Of Ethanol

Last night's "60 Minutes" featured a report from correspondent Dan Rather about ethanol. The tone of the story was suggested by its title: "The Ethanol Solution." Rather and producer Michael Rosenbaum's story largely presented ethanol in a positive light, lauding it as a potential solution to America's reliance on foreign oil.

At the top of the piece, Professor Daniel Kammen is quoted on the topic of Brazil's embrace of ethanol. "They made it work — and it wasn't even that hard," he says. Rather then says that ethanol solved both of Brazil's problems, including the fact that "their economy was being strangled by the high price of imported oil."

The story is not an unqualified celebration of ethanol, but it does focus on the positive. Here's one quote from the piece, from Pine Lake Processing Plant board member Polly Granzow: "Ethanol has been one of the best-kept secrets that is out there. We know it's a good product. We know it's good for the economy. We know it's good for the environment."

Later, Kammen speaks again: "Ethanol provides a wonderful short-term option because we can use corn today to make it, and have significant savings in terms of off-setting gasoline, and modest savings on a greenhouse gas level. The big plus is it's available today, so we could make this transition starting tomorrow, if we wanted." When oil companies' position on ethanol is discussed, Rather is shown asking, "Why shouldn't I think, well, this is just a way for the oil companies to slow or snuff out the growth of ethanol, and other alternatives?"

The piece closes with this quote from farmer Larry Meints: "It's a win-win thing for the nation, and for our local economy here to create jobs locally, rather than sending the money overseas, and sometimes to people that really don't like us very well."

Back on April 18, Wyatt Andrews covered ethanol on the CBS "Evening News." His story was part of a "Reality Check" segment, and the tone was markedly different than the tone of the "60 Minutes" piece. After a brief discussion of how ethanol production is booming and how one farmer thinks "it's the first step towards [energy] independence," Andrews sounds an alarm:

ANDREWS: Congress created this boom last year when it ordered ethanol production to double and then through subsidies at every aspect of the business from the corn plant to the production plant to the gas stations carrying blended fuel. But the big question is: What are we really getting?

Mr. DANIEL BECKER: Ethanol is no boon for energy, and it's no boon for the environment.

ANDREWS: Daniel Becker of the Sierra Club, an environmental group, says corn-based ethanol uses huge amounts of oil and gas to cultivate the corn, transport the corn and run the ethanol factories.

Mr. BECKER: It's not a great deal because you're putting so much energy in to get a modest amount of energy out.

ANDREWS: One of the challenges for ethanol comes from the fact that it is made out here on the prairie. It's too corrosive to put in a pipeline, and so 100 percent of it has to be put on a train or a truck or even a barge to get it to market.

In March, the Energy Department warned that because of transport problems, ethanol, which is already blended into a third of the gas supply, could actually raise gas prices this summer.

The story goes on a bit longer after that – a representative from the Renewable Fuels Association calls the notion that ethanol is going to raise gas prices "lunacy," and farmer Bill Couser points out that "some day, we'll run out of oil" – and then Andrews closes with this:
All of this construction is also bringing new jobs and wealth into politically powerful farm states. And so with every new plant and every truckload of corn, America is growing dependent on a new kind of fuel.
Comparing stories like this is an inexact science. But I think it's safe to say one would come away from these two stories with very different impressions of the value of ethanol. (If you want to watch Andews' story for yourself, by the way, click on the words "Ethanol: An Energy Solution?" on the right side of the page here.) The "60 Minutes" story was largely a celebration of ethanol's potential; the "Evening News" piece was a "reality check" about its limitations.

Is one story better, or more correct, than the other? I don't really think so, though I'm sure there are those who would make the case for one or the other. "60 Minutes" and the "Evening News" are separate editorial entities and are certainly entitled to different approaches to the same subject, of course. But it's interesting to note that journalists working for the same news organization would approach a subject like this from such markedly different perspectives.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue