Platts Energy Week: Cellulosic Industry’s Implosion Demonstrates Government’s Inability To Plan Economy

by William Yeatman on August 3, 2014

in Blog

Cellulosic ethanol is a transportation “bio”fuel made from anything other than food. There was no cellulosic industry in the U.S. in 2007, when Congress decided to create one from scratch with the passage of the Energy Independence and Security Act. To this end, lawmakers simply mandated ever-increasing volumes of production, until 2022, when cellulosic ethanol is supposed to account for about 10% of the total market for transportation fuels.

In 2014, for example, the statutory mandate is 1.75 billion gallons. So how’s that working out for us?

No so well, according to Platts Senior Editor Herman Wang. In an interview in this Sunday’s Platts Energy Week with Bill Loveless, Mr. Wang estimates that the market has produced a paltry 50,000 gallons of cellulosic ethanol so far in 2014, or .003% of the requirement codified by law. Nor is there much hope of a production breakout in the second half of the year, as the industry is in total disarray, reports Mr. Wang.

This is an industry that has been billed a game changer in the U.S. transportation fuels sector, but reality has yet to catch up to the hype. Last year, there were signs this industry may be turning the corner. There was a company Kior that in March said it had generated its first renewable credits, called RINs…and in July, we had another company, Ineos Bio, say that they had produced there first commercial quantities. So things were looking up. Since then, it’s been bad news. Ineos bio has since said that it’s suffering what it called “unexpected startup problems.” And Kior had to shut down its facility due to finance problems…The EPA, which tracks biofuel production from month to month, just announced that in June, 0 gallons of cellulosic biofuels were produced. This is the second month in a row, there’s been no production.

In practice, EPA has been revising Congress’s impossible targets such that they become only somewhat less impossible. In 2011, for example, EPA revised the Congress’s 250 million gallon target to 6 million gallons, but, in fact, 0 gallons were produced. For 2012, Congress’s original target was greater than 500 million gallons but it was reduced down to 10.45 million gallons, which was still outrageous because the industry produced only 20,000. According to Mr. Wang, EPA revised the 2014 target to 17 million. This is, obviously, far higher than the 50,000 gallons that are likely to represent total production for 2014.

As I explain here, the absence of a breakthrough by the cellulosic industry presents a quintessential example of how the government is incapable of creating markets by command. This point is demonstrated visually in the graphic below, which plots the statutory requirements against EPA’s revised targets (which themselves are a proxy for actual production). As is readily evident, the gulf is widening between the congress’s command and reality.



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