Monday, May 09, 2011

Twilight of the Ethanol Subsidy?

The current tax credit for blending grain ethanol into gasoline, the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (VEETC), has outlived its usefulness. That's not just because I consider it unwise to subsidize any industry to such a generous extent for more than thirty years, but also because the passage of the ambitious federal Renewable Fuels Standard in 2007 made it redundant. Refiners aren't just paid to blend ethanol into gasoline; they're required by law to do so. One of the trade associations for the ethanol industry reached a similar conclusion last year, though presumably for different reasons. Nevertheless, the politics of such a big change looked dire. Now it appears that the unthinkable might be happening with the introduction of two separate bills in the Senate, one of which would scale back the ethanol credit significantly, while the other would eliminate it outright.

The tougher of the two bills comes from a pair of Senators representing states that consume far more ethanol than they produce. In fact, I couldn't find a single ethanol plant in Oklahoma, which Senator Coburn (R) represents. Whether the Feinstein-Coburn bill stands a chance or not, I'm much more interested in the equally bi-partisan measure from two farm state senators, Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Charles Grassley (R-IA). As described in the press, it would reduce the VEETC from $0.45 per gallon this year to $0.20/gal. for 2012 and $0.15/gal. for 2013, after which it would fall to a level indexed to oil prices. At the current price of West Texas Intermediate, it would be zero.

Of course the context for the Conrad-Grassley bill is that without legislative action the current blenders credit is due to expire completely at the end of this year. However, we've been in this position before, more than once, and each time the tax credit was rolled over with a few minor tweaks, such as the cut from $0.51/gal. to $0.45/gal. in 2008. My default assumption has been for a similar rollover this year, but with support from the largest ethanol trade groups in the country, the provisions of the Conrad-Grassley Bill appear to have become the new default. The bill also extends some tax credits for cellulosic biofuel and alternative fuel refueling facilities, including E85, and reduces the ethanol import tariff modestly, starting in 2012.

Although outright termination of the corn ethanol tax credit would be justifiable, it would also be highly disruptive to an industry that we've encouraged for so long, and that has struggled with thin margins even with the tax credit in place. A phase-out seems reasonable and would at least save taxpayers up to $3.3 billion next year and more the following year, depending on how much ethanol is actually sold and how many retailers take advantage of the incentives for installing E85 facilities. There's an argument that this might result in higher prices at the pump, as refiners' blending costs rise, though any such impact is likely to be lost in the noise of normal fuel price volatility.

Winding down this subsidy in an orderly fashion is important, but it's even more important that we learn the lessons it teaches. The cultivation of corn and its conversion to ethyl alcohol are subject to natural limits of scale that are lower than those for wind and solar power or plug-in electric cars, all of which also benefit from generous subsidies. Our pockets simply aren't deep enough to repeat our experience with ethanol subsidies with these other energy alternatives. In an era of fiscal limits, alternative energy tax incentives that are orders of magnitude higher per BTU or kilowatt-hour than those enjoyed by conventional energy sources should only be offered for a limited time, and then phased out on a predictable schedule before they take on the mantle of permanent entitlements.

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