Bob Barr, [un]Principled Supporter of Ethanol

by Brian McGraw on September 24, 2010

in Blog

Bob Barr, the 2008 Libertarian Party presidential nominee, had a piece in yesterday’s Huffington Post titled Extending Ethanol Tax Credit Makes Sense. It’s depressing to see such a high-profile libertarian completely sell out, and I hope he receives flack over this return to special interest politics, as just over a year ago he said “How about the still-active ethanol subsidy scam? Thankfully, the online comments from the left-leaning Huffington Post suggest few are buying into his spiel. If this was some ploy by the ethanol industry to gain support from free-marketers, let me suggest that will not succeed. The entire article is full of misinformation.

Barr attributes a “lack of public awareness,” and the tax credit’s apparent complexity to the trouble ethanol proponents are having in re-securing the tax credits.

I would think a lack of public awareness, if anything, would help the ethanol industry. If the public was even remotely aware of the extent to which government support for ethanol is bad policy, more people would be against it. Right now, all they’re seeing is the occasional advertisement featuring a bright yellow corn-stalk or blabber about how ethanol can’t spill in the gulf (unless we import it from Brazil, then of course the likelihood of a spill approaches 100%). I’d suggest that the ethanol industry get in touch with the sugar lobby for a few pointers on how to maintain horrendous policy.

Barr cites a 2010 CBO report, “Using Biofuel Tax Credits to Achieve Energy and Environmental Policy Goals“ and concludes that evaluating the benefits of ethanol is daunting and un-objective. Confident that no one will actually find the report and read even the summary, Barr is able to completely misconstrue the conclusions of the report (and he talks of ethanol opponents being disingenuous).

At the risk of repeating myself for the 10th time, let’s look at relevant quotes from the CBO report:

From the conclusions section of their summary:

The costs to taxpayers of using a biofuel to reduce gasoline consumption by one gallon are $1.78 for ethanol made from corn and $3.00 for cellulosic ethanol.

Taxpayers spend $1.78 to reduce consumption of one gallon of gasoline; approximately 66% of current gas prices. Sounds like a great deal to me.

Similarly, the costs to taxpayers of reducing greenhouse gas emissions through the biofuel tax credits vary by fuel: about $750 per metric ton of CO2e (that is, per metric ton of greenhouse gases measured in terms of an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide) for ethanol, about $275 per metric ton of CO2e for cellulosic ethanol, and about $300 per metric ton of CO2e for biodiesel. Those estimates do not reflect any emissions of carbon dioxide that occur when the production of biofuels causes forests or grasslands to be converted to farmland for growing the fuels’ feedstocks. If those emissions were taken into account, such changes in land use would raise the cost of reducing emissions and change the relative costs of reducing emissions through the use of different biofuels—in some cases, by a substantial amount.

Not cost effective at lowering emissions. The Waxman Markley cap-and-trade bill had permits set to be traded at $32. Equivalent carbon permits in the EU are selling for approximately $20. This means that other industries are capable of reducing their GHG emissions at a cost of 23-27 times less.

“In the future, the scheduled rise in mandated volumes would require the production of biofuels in amounts that are probably beyond what the market would produce even if the effects of the tax credits were included. To the extent that the mandates determine levels of production in the future, the biofuel tax credits would no longer be increasing production, but they would still be reducing the costs borne by producers and consumers of biofuels and shifting some of those costs to taxpayers.”

Given the Renewable Fuels Standard, the tax credit doesn’t do much other than secure (little) excess profit for the ethanol industry at taxpayer expense.

Continuing on, Barr discusses subsidies for the oil-companies and job losses. The oil company subsidies are mostly in the form of tax write-offs available to a wide sector of U.S. industry (good summary here) rather than just the oil companies. To the extent to which the oil companies do receive subsidies, they are larger on an absolute level but are dwarfed by all sectors of “renewable energy” (let us not forget that the ethanol industry relies on fossil fuels to produce ethanol) on a per unit of energy produced basis.

Job losses of over 100,000 are a complete falsehood perpetuated by the ethanol industry. See a study here; which explains that job losses are likely to be under 1,000 because of the RFS mandating ethanol production.

Finally, Barr requests a fair and comprehensive debate including the “philosophical pros and cons” of federal tax policy. Then sneaks in the fact that despite the VEETC the ethanol industry is a net contributor to tax revenue. This is probably true, though it ignores the numerous state level subsidies and the years and year of subsidies when net tax revenues were likely negative. Furthermore, the net tax revenue of the ethanol industry would likely be higher under a scenario where the U.S. taxpayers didn’t write a $6 billion check each year supporting them.

Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously. Let’s hope its not hurting Mr. Barr too much this week as he recovers from a disgraceful opinion piece.

Subsidy Eye September 25, 2010 at 3:43 am

Good piece. And encouraging that the most Huff Post readers (except for a very active poster who is trying desperately to challenge every ethanol-policy) are not buying Barr’s arguments. Fingers crossed, but for the first time in 30 years there is a real chance that the VEETC will be allowed to expire. (Let’s hope that the tax breaks for the oil industry are also repealed.)

Regarding Barr, it is, indeed, depressing to see libertarians selling out. But that’s the unfortunate state of libertarianism in the United States. While there are many intelligent libertarian thinkers, the people the Libertarian Party support for public office too often fall far short of their own ideals.

Subsidy Eye September 25, 2010 at 3:44 am

Sorry, I meant to say “except for a very active poster who is trying desperately to challenge every ethanol-policy CRITIC”.

valdosta September 26, 2010 at 7:53 am

Superb writing. Can’t wait to read more.

justin lampert October 12, 2010 at 12:53 pm

bob barr is my favorite

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