MARCH 16, 2009 WSJ
"These days, it's routine for businesses to fail, get rescued by the government, and then continue to fail. But ethanol, which survives only because of its iron lung of subsidies and mandates, is a special case. Naturally, the industry is demanding even more government life support.
Corn ethanol producers -- led by Wesley Clark, the retired general turned chairman of a new biofuels lobbying outfit called Growth Energy -- want the Obama Administration to make their guaranteed market even larger. Recall that the 2007 energy bill requires refiners to mix 36 billion gallons into the gasoline supply by 2022. The quotas, which ratchet up each year, are arbitrary, but evidently no one in Congress wondered what might happen if the economy didn't cooperate.
Now the recession is hammering demand for gas. The Energy Information Administration notes that U.S. consumption fell nearly 7% in 2008 and expects another 2.2% drop this year. That comes as great news for President Obama, who is achieving his carbon-reduction goals even without a new carbon tax, but the irony is that the ethanol industry is part of the wider collateral damage.
Americans are unlikely to use enough gas next year to absorb the 13 billion gallons of ethanol that Congress mandated, because current regulations limit the ethanol content in each gallon of gas at 10%. The industry is asking that this cap be lifted to 15% or even 20%. That way, more ethanol can be mixed with less gas, and producers won't end up with a glut that the government does not require anyone to buy.
The ethanol boosters aren't troubled that only a fraction of the 240 million cars and trucks on the road today can run with ethanol blends higher than 10%. It can damage engines and corrode automotive pipes, as well as impair some safety features, especially in older vehicles. It can also overwhelm pollution control systems like catalytic converters. The malfunctions multiply in other products that use gas, such as boats, snowmobiles, lawnmowers, chainsaws, etc.
That possible policy train wreck is uniting almost every other Washington lobby -- and talk about strange bedfellows. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the Motorcycle Industry Council and the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, among others, are opposed, since raising the blend limit will ruin their products. The left-leaning American Lung Association and the Union of Concerned Scientists are opposed too, since it will increase auto emissions. The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club agree, on top of growing scientific evidence that corn ethanol provides little or no net reduction in CO2 over the gasoline it displaces.
The biggest losers in this scheme are U.S. oil refiners. Liability for any problems arising from ethanol blending rests with them, because Congress refused to grant legal immunity for selling a product that complies with the mandates that it ordered. The refiners are also set to pay stiff fines for not fulfilling Congress's mandates for second-generation cellulosic ethanol. But the cellulosic ethanol makers themselves already concede that they won't be able to churn out enough of the stuff -- 100 million gallons next year, 250 million gallons in 2011 -- to meet the targets that Congress wrote two years ago.
So successful but politically unpopular businesses will be punished for not buying a product that does not exist -- from companies that haven't yet found a way to succeed despite generous political and taxpayer advantages. The next step is to use cap and trade to make green alternatives look artificially good by comparison. Even then they'll probably still be bottomless money pits.
To recap: Congress and the ethanol lobby argue that if some outcome would be politically nice, it should be mandated (details to follow). Then a new round of market interventions is necessary to fix the economic harm resulting from the previous requirements, while creating more damage in the process. Ethanol is one of the most shameless energy rackets going, in a field with no shortage of competitors."
from the WSJ