Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Setting Ethanol Free

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently issued its report assessing the impact of the production and use of biofuels in the US. Among its recommendations was a call for the Congress to reassess whether corn ethanol still needs the support of a $0.45 per gallon blenders' credit, when its use by refiners and gasoline blenders is now mandated under the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) that was set by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA). As you might imagine, this has set the cat among the pigeons and prompted a terse and dismissive response from the Renewable Fuels Association, the trade group representing the US ethanol industry. Along with several points that I interpret as making at least as good a case for dropping the subsidy as keeping it, their main defense boils down to a combination of historical precedent and envy of the industry that is its primary customer. Neither justification stands up to scrutiny.

Consider the historical argument first. There's no doubt that without the subsidies provided by the federal government and various states over the last thirty-plus years, the ethanol industry would not have grown to a sufficient scale to take on the new challenge set for it by Congress in the EISA. From the landmark establishment of a $0.40/gal. excise tax exemption for ethanol blended into gasoline under the Energy Tax Act of 1978, it took the industry 14 years to grow to the 1 billion-gallon-per-year (BGY) mark (equivalent to 43,000 barrels per day of gasoline) and another decade to reach 2 BGY. When EISA was passed at the end of 2007, the industry was already producing around 6 BGY and had built enough capacity to produce nearly 8 BGY, or around 5.5% of US gasoline demand that year, by volume. That was already more than the 7.5 BGY required under the previous RFS established by the Energy Policy Act of 2005. But as ambitious as the goals of the newly-enacted RFS seemed in 2007, the industry continued building capacity at a rapid pace, and by the start of this year had enough ethanol plants built or under construction to satisfy 97% of the 15 billion gallon target (and ceiling) that Congress set for corn ethanol.

Two things seem clear from this history: First, the combination of a generous blenders' credit, which until the start of this year paid $0.51/gal., and two successive federal biofuel standards led to over-expansion of the ethanol industry relative to demand, either mandated or economic. That harmed the industry and led to many ethanol plants being sold or mothballed in the last year, with a number of ethanol companies going bankrupt, including VeraSun, which had been an industry leader not long before its demise. Other important factors certainly contributed to these business failures, including the spike in corn and oil prices in 2007 and 2008 and the sudden collapse of the latter last fall; however, the over-extension of these companies as they went deeper and deeper into debt to build new capacity left them particularly vulnerable to volatile commodity markets and the emerging credit crisis.

In addition, the above figures make it very plain that the US corn ethanol industry doesn't need to grow further, because it is already within striking distance of the target set by the government, which also appears to represent the maximum prudent level of output for a fuel source that makes such heavy use of water and fossil energy sources in its production, and that ultimately competes with the consumption of corn as food or feed, here and abroad. In other words, the work of the subsidies and mandates for corn ethanol is complete, and the government has shifted its focus to cellulosic ethanol and other advanced biofuels, which enjoy their own distinct--and more generous--subsidies. It hopes these sources will expand from essentially zero to cover the remaining 21 BGY of the current RFS by 2022.

The argument that corn ethanol is somehow entitled to perpetual subsidies on the basis of an inaccurate comparison to the tax benefits currently enjoyed by the oil & gas industry--tax benefits that are currently under threat, themselves--is equally unpersuasive. In the posting in which I recently examined the Treasury Department's arguments for dismantling those oil & gas tax benefits, I compared the level of incentives for conventional fuels with those provided to ethanol. That $0.45/gal. ethanol blenders' credit swells to the equivalent of about $0.77/gal. after accounting for the lower energy content of ethanol. That compares to incentives of around $0.12/gal. for US oil production. And that doesn't even take into consideration the fact that producing a gallon of ethanol requires much more energy from other sources, such as natural gas, than producing a gallon of crude oil or gasoline. Thus ethanol receives at least six times the subsidy per delivered BTU that domestic oil does, even though their energy security benefits per gallon are identical.

The GAO report estimates the cost to the Treasury of the ethanol blenders' credit at $4 billion last year, growing to $6.75 billion by 2015, if not sooner. Although at a time of trillion-dollar deficits that may look no more significant than a rounding error in the government's books, continuing this outdated and unnecessary incentive sends a bad message to the developers of other, less mature alternative energy sources. It tells them that they don't need to worry so much about making their technologies competitive with conventional energy, because the government is likely to subsidize them until the end of time--or until the Treasury runs out of money, a date that will surely arrive faster, the more unnecessary subsidies it hands out. After having been extended by last year's Farm Bill, the present Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit and the tariff on imported ethanol that mirrors it are due to expire at the end of next year. After 30 years of assistance--spanning my entire career in energy--it's time to find out whether this industry can survive and compete on its own.

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