The ethanol industry has taken President Obama to task for suggesting that distilling alcohol from corn is not the most efficient way to provide transportation fuel and that more research is needed into “cellulosic” sources of ethanol.  The President made his remarks at a White House event in which questions from citizens were relayed to him via Twitter.

Obama, who has supported ethanol subsidies as a Senator from corn-rich Illinois and as President, was asked during the Twitter event by a person from Iowa if the subsidies would be reduced.

“I’m a big supporter of biofuels,” Obama said.  “But one of the things that’s become clear is, is that we need to accelerate our basic research in ethanol and other biofuels that are made from things like woodchips and algae as opposed to just focusing on corn, which is probably the least efficient energy producer of these various other approaches. And, so I think that it’s important to even those folks in farm states who traditionally have been strong supporters of ethanol, to examine are we in fact going after the cutting-edge biodiesel and ethanol approaches that allow, for example, Brazil to run about a third of its transportation system on biofuels. Now they get it from sugar cane and it’s a more efficient conversion process than corn-based ethanol. And so us doing more basic research in finding better ways to do the same concept I think is the right way to go.”

The President did not actually answer via Twitter since his response was far over the 140-character limit.

Obama’s mild skepticism about corn-based ethanol was too much for Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA).

“While much of our industry’s research and development focus is on the next generation of feedstocks and biofuels, the existing grain-based industry has quietly made tremendous strides in its economic and environmental efficiency in recent years,” Dineen wrote in a letter to Mr. Obama.  “Given its rapid rate of innovation and evolution, it was concerning to hear you suggest during your Twitter town hall that American ethanol was behind the innovation curve.  More troubling was your assessment that Brazilian ethanol is a superior, more efficient product than the one produced here at home.”

Ethanol derived from corn in the United States is “the most cost-effective motor fuel on the market today, costing less than Brazilian ethanol and gasoline,” Dinneen wrote. He added that working conditions in the U.S. corn and ethanol industries stand in “stark contrast to some of the working conditions and pay received by Brazilians employed on sugar plantations and ethanol mills.”

As to the President’s comment on efficiency, Dinneen noted in his letter that “ethanol production today is showing tremendous energy benefits with current ethanol production producing up to 2.3 units of energy for every unit of energy used. Together with improved efficiencies and new technologies, ethanol producers are getting more ethanol per bushel of corn and using fewer BTUs and gallons of water in the process.”

In his letter, Dinneen mentioned federal loan guarantees to plants utilizing cellulosic technology.  He did not, however, mention the estimated $6 billion in tax credits that support the ethanol industry through the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (VEETC) or the direct supports for the ethanol industry that RFA is seeking in place of VEETC.