President Obama devoted his weekly address to energy and transportation policy this week, speaking to the nation from an Allison hybrid bus transmission plant in Indiana. A White House blog post accompanying video of the President’s speech included a large infographic on “The Obama Energy Agenda And Gas Prices,” the transportation-oriented section I’ve excerpted above. This one section is actually a fairly good representation of Obama’s auto-related energy policy preferences, and illustrates why I often find myself criticizing the president here at TTAC.
A massive study by the Government Accountability Office into “Opportunities to Reduce Potential Duplication in Government Programs, Save Tax Dollars, and Enhance Revenue” has turned up an interesting finding. It seems that the government’s desire to buy more “alternative fuel vehicles” (AFVs) may actually increase the amount of gasoline used by government fleets. Why? Because agencies largely buy E85 ethanol-powered vehicles to fulfill their AFV requirements, and there aren’t enough E85 pumps to actually fuel the fleet, forcing agencies to obtain waivers to buy regular gasoline. Hit the jump for the report’s full findings on this, the latest unintended consequence of America’s ongoing ethanol-subsidy boondoggle.
How things change in a few years! Just a few short orbits of the sun ago, automakers like GM were some of the biggest boosters of ethanol subsidies. Now, the Detroit News reports
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers – the trade association representing General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Group LLC, Toyota Motor Corp. and eight others – opposes a bill sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, that would require 90 percent of all vehicles to run on E85 – a blend of 85 percent ethanol – by the 2016 model year.
Shane Karr, vice president for government affairs, said the mandate “would cost consumers more than $2 billion per year” for flex fuel vehicles if automakers passed on the full cost “even though consumers will have little or no access to alternative fuels. Therefore, such a mandate is essentially a tax with little consumer benefit.”
In the face of this new opposition, the Renewable Fuels Association has even taken to employing the rhetoric of market economics to justify market-manipulating ethanol subsidies. And it doesn’t seem to be convincing anyone. If anything, Harkin’s bill may just hasten the death of existing subsidies, which are under pressure as both Democrats and Republicans seek to trim the federal budget.
The EPA’s decision to allow E15 ethanol in public pumps has been something of a lesson in the way politics can trump common sense. The decision was motivated by intense pressure brought to bear by the ethanol industry, which is facing a serious problem in the form of a “blend wall.” The industry first tried to get the EPA to approve the 15-percent ethanol blend before research was complete, and the agency’s approvals came first for 2007 model-year and later vehicles, and was expanded shortly thereafter to 2001 and later models. In the meantime, a number of industries have come out against E15, suing the EPA to stop the approval and calling for congressional hearings. Now, with few reasons left to support E15 outside of propping up the staggering farm-state ethanol industry and huge portions of the economy coming out against it, the House has voted “overwhelmingly” to ban E15 from America’s gas pumps.
Nothing makes this bloggers day like finding a story that highlights how the world of cars interacts with every facet of our national life… and few stories illustrate the universal impact of cars and fuels like the Atlantic’s recent piece on one man’s attempt to turn Afghanistan’s opium poppy crop into biodiesel. The plan was to help Afghanistan’s poorest farmers use poppy seeds to create biodiesel, but along the way the plan ran into the challenges of diplomacy, bureaucracy, foreign occupation, environmental issues and cultural conflict. In fact, all of the complexity and struggle involved with the military occupation of a foreign country come out in this fascinating piece, which begins:
Back in the fall of 2008, Michael Bester and a business partner, both Army veterans doing contract work in Afghanistan, hit on the equivalent of the counterinsurgency’s trifecta: a way to improve the lives of ordinary Afghans, eliminate the illegal opium trade, and take the Taliban’s money. “We had been in villages where children were dying because they didn’t have proper medicine, because they didn’t have refrigerators,” Bester told me. Light up the villages, and perhaps you could empower Afghans to resist the Taliban. And the fuel? Most any feedstock would work, but one compelling option was the ubiquitous poppies that stoke the Taliban’s lucrative drug trade. Why not turn them into biodiesel instead?
Make diesel, not drugs! Read the whole thing here.
The EPA has followed up its ruling allowing E15 ethanol blends (15% ethanol, 85% gasoline) to be pumped to vehicles built for the 2007 model-year and later, now allowing the corn juice-enhanced gasoline to be distributed to any vehicle built after 2001. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced the decision to Bloomberg arguing
Wherever sound science and the law support steps to allow more home-grown fuels in America’s vehicles, this administration takes those steps
But, as is the case with most ethanol-related decisions, this has more to do with politics than science. After nearly ending the boondoggle known as the “Blender’s Credit,” which pays blenders for every gallon of ethanol they mix into America’s fuel supply, congress relented to lobbyist pressure and extended the $6b per year giveaway for another year. And with that financial incentive in place (along with a “renewable fuel mandate”) but little to no consumer demand to support it, blenders need to find ways to slip ever more ethanol into American gasoline. But, as a recent study proves, even E15 won’t beat the so-called “blend wall”: at best E15 gives the ethanol industry four years of taxpayer-fattened profits before it will be forced to come back and ask the government to yet again increase the amount of ethanol allowed in the gas supply.
Meanwhile, the auto industry that once saw ethanol as a prime opportunity for low-cost greenwashing has made an about-face and is suing to stop the spread of E15, arguing that its effects on engine life haven’t been adequately studied. And because ethanol offers little to no benefits relative to gasoline in terms of environmental or efficiency impacts, the fact that the EPA may be endangering automobile engines in order to keep an oversubsidized industry on (expensive) life support is beyond galling. It’s clear that, with the legislative and executive branches of government held in sway by ethanol-friendly farm states, motorists are now dependent on the court system to do the right thing and end government’s senseless love affair with ethanol.
Recently the ethanol industry has “suffered” from a problem that epitomizes the problematic nature of government subsidies. Known as the “blend wall” this obstacle was created not by negligence on the part of the industry, but by the fact that its lobbying efforts have been far more effective than its marketing efforts. The problem, in a nutshell, is that the 2007 Renewable Fuel Standard mandates a steady increase in the amount of ethanol blended into the national fuel supply, from 9 billion gallons per year (BGY) in 2008 to 36 BGY in 2022… but with gasoline consumption falling and with standard pump gasoline capped at a maximum of ten percent ethanol (recently raised to 15% for vehicles built after 2007), the industry that’s supposed to get America off gas needs more gas to blend its ethanol into. As a study in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics puts it
Total national consumption of gasoline in the United States has been about 140 billion gallons in 2010 and is expected to fall over time due to increasing fuel economy standards. Thus, at present, if every drop of gasoline were blended as E10, the maximum ethanol that could be absorbed would be 14 billion gallons. In reality, 10% cannot be blended in all regions and seasons. Most experts consider an average blend of 9% to be the effective maximum, which amounts to about 12.6 billion gallons. U.S. ethanol production capacity already exceeds this level. Thus, our ability to consume ethanol has reached a limit called the blend wall.
The solution: well, the EPA’s ruling allowing 15% ethanol blends was supposed to fix the problem, but according to this report, that “fix” would only buy some four years before the industry is back to bumping against the blend wall. The solution?
With ethanol as the primary biofuel and either blend limit (E10 or E15), a substantial increase in E85 would be required to fulfill the mandate.
the political tail has wagged the scientific dog on ethanol ever since the farm lobby realized that ethanol could be the next corn syrup. With any luck, this lawsuit could just be the point at which science re-asserts itself.
The missing link: the automakers. Though auto manufacturers have been slowly climbing on board the anti-ethanol bandwagon, in no small part because large domestic OEMs like GM were once closely allied with the ethanol industry, it seems that the coalition to stop E15 is now complete. A new group known as the Engine Products Group, comprised of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, The Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, the National Marine Manufacturers Association, and the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, has filed a new petition to block the EPA’s E15 ruling.
Senate Democrats confirm that an extension of the full 45 cents/gal tax credit and 54 cents/gal import duty has been included in the Senate version of a Bush Tax Credit extension, prompting an angry response from the Brazilian sugar cane ethanol lobby. With Brazilian subsidies set to drop by nine cents per gallon, the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association (UNICA) claims that the American subsidy is no longer an “offset” but a full-fledged barrier to trade. UNICA’s President Marcos Jank tells brighterenergy.com
It is clear that the United States is not committed to open and fair trade in clean energy, particularly ethanol. We will have exhausted all options to resolve our differences through informal dialogue and the U.S. legislative process. It will then be time for the WTO to resolve this matter in accordance with applicable international rights and obligations.
Previously it was reported that the ethanol Blender’s Credit would be extended at a lower rate of 36 cents/gal, but with the tax credit extension debate snowballing into a lame duck slugfest, it seems that the subsidy extension was included to bring farm-state legislators on board. In addition to pissing off the Brazilians and possibly sparking a WTO battle, a full five-year extension of ethanol subsidies and tariffs at the current rate will cost the government no less than $31b. But don’t start planting corn yet… House Democrats seem set on scuppering the Senate’s tax credit extension deal (even though they support the ethanol extension). If they keep anything from passing during the lame duck session, the subsidies will expire completely, forcing the industry to champion new legislation. The battle rages on…
It is not a good policy to have these massive subsidies for first generation ethanol. First generation ethanol I think was a mistake. The energy conversion ratios are at best very small… One of the reasons I made that mistake is that I paid particular attention to the farmers in my home state of Tennessee, and I had a certain fondness for the farmers in the state of Iowa because I was about to run for president
Al Gore reveals [via MSNBC] that politics, not science, made an ethanol believer out of him. More than anything else, the admission underlines how badly ethanol can lose the war of ideas and still be heavily subsidized without fear of political attack. After all, what Presidential hopeful (read:every member of Congress) wants to shut down the biggest pork trough in Iowa, a state that just happens to be the first primary of the race for the White House? Heck, Al Gore probably had to lose his favorite weedwhacker to ethanol gum before he came out against the stuff. But just because your representative won’t vote against ethanol, doesn’t mean you can’t… surf over to pure-gas.org for a list of ethanol-free gas pumps near you.