Post image for Ethanol: Bad Deal for Consumers Gets Worse

Responding to the anti-Renewable Fuel Standard Hill briefing discussed on this blog yesterday, Tom Buis, CEO of ethanol trade group Growth Energy, asserted that “homegrown American renewable energy provides consumers with a choice and savings” (Greenwire, subscription required). Rubbish. Under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), ethanol consumption is a mandate, not a choice. 

Buis’s claim that ethanol relieves pain at the pump sounds plausible because a gallon of ethanol is cheaper than a gallon of gasoline. However, ethanol has about one-third less energy than gasoline and does not make up the difference in price. Consequently, the higher the ethanol blend, the worse mileage your car gets, and the more money you spend to drive a given distance.

FuelEconomy.Gov, a Web site jointly administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy (DOE) calculates how much a typical motorist would spend in a year to fill up a flex-fuel vehicle with either E85 (motor fuel made with 85% ethanol) or regular gasoline. The exact bottom line changes as gasoline and ethanol prices change. The big picture, though, is always the same: Ethanol is a net money loser for the consumer.

For example, at prices prevailing in late November 2012, it cost $500 more per year to drive on E85. When I checked FuelEconomy.Gov last week, E85 cost the average motorist an additional $600 per year.

A bad deal just got worse. At today’s prices, it would cost an extra $700-$900 a year to switch from regular gasoline to E85. Some savings! Small wonder that our ‘choice’ to buy ethanol must be mandated.

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Post image for Ethanol Still Not Lowering the Real Cost of Gasoline

In the wake of high gasoline prices, the ethanol industry is making the rounds in Washington, and they want you to believe that the Renewable Fuel Standard has lowered gasoline prices by up to $.89 per gallon. This would be remarkable, if it were true. The ethanol industry relies on a study produced by the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development at the University of Iowa. Here is the abstract:

This report updates the findings in Du and Hayes 2009 by extending the data to December 2010 and concludes that over the sample period from January 2000 to December 2010, the growth in ethanol production reduced wholesale gasoline prices by $0.25 per gallon on average. The Midwest region experienced the biggest impact, with a $0.39/gallon reduction, while the East Coast had the smallest impact at $0.16/gallon. Based on the data of 2010 only, the marginal impacts on gasoline prices are found to be substantially higher given the much higher ethanol production and crude oil prices. The average effect increases to $0.89/gallon and the regional impact ranges from $0.58/gallon in the East Coast to $1.37/gallon in the Midwest. In addition, we report on a related analysis that asks what would happen to US gasoline prices if ethanol production came to an immediate halt. Under a very wide range of parameters, the estimated gasoline price increase would be of historic proportions, ranging from 41% to 92%.

If we go to E85prices.com, we see that as of March 29, 2012 the average nationwide price-spread between E85 and E10 is 14.7%, with E85 costing an average of $3.31/gallon and E10 costing an average of $3.89/gallon. Ethanol has less energy content than gasoline, so a direct price comparison is not appropriate. The generally accepted metric is that E85 must be priced about 28% lower than E10 in order to break even, meaning that the cost per mile driven is equal between E85 and E10. [click to continue…]

The title of an op-ed published in The Wall Street Journal claims: “A Flex-Fuel Mandate Is Pro-Market.” The ethanol industry has made this argument time and time again, that somehow forcing private corporations to adjust their products in a way that will pad the wallets of certain energy sectors is somehow pro-market. Unsurprisingly, his argument relies on the notion that OPEC controls significant portions of oil output, so thus, the U.S. government ought to intervene to level the playing field:

The price of oil is set by a foreign cartel. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) owns almost 80% of global oil reserves yet produces only 36% of daily global supply. This dominant position enables OPEC to raise or lower their production to maintain the global supply-demand relationship that suits their interest. If U.S. oil companies produce more, OPEC will produce less.

Let’s open our market to good old American competition. Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman stressed that the foremost economic duty of government is to eliminate cartel pricing. Bills are now pending in both houses of the Congress (HR 1687 and S1603) that seek to do exactly that by requiring car makers to enable fuel competition in their own product lines—adding flex-fuel, all electric, hybrid electric, or any other way auto makers choose to implement the law. [click to continue…]

January marked the first month that the ethanol industry had to stand on its own feet was only supported by a massive taxpayer mandate for their product, rather than tax preferences, tariff protections, and a mandate.

Do not fret, as sales for E10 (10% ethanol 90% gasoline, commonly purchased at the pump) will hold remarkably steady, because this is the primary venue the rent-seekers use to dilute our nations gasoline supply with ethanol. I only slightly kid, as it makes sense to blend small percentages of ethanol into our fuel supply, though not in amounts exceeding 10 percent.

However, in the United States there are also niche markets for E-85, which is made up of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline. E85 sales more accurately reflect what an actual competitor to gasoline would look like, as E10 blends only supplement regular fuel production. While there are a number of flex-fuel vehicles on the road (FFVs) capable of running on any blend of ethanol and gasoline, E85 sales have never taken off in the United States. This is because, after adjusting for the lower energy content in ethanol, it costs more money per mile traveled to fuel your vehicle with E85 than E10. It has always been this way and its unclear if it will ever change.

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Post image for Ethanol Tax Credit More Likely to Expire

The ethanol compromise did not make it into any debt ceiling negotiations and its future is now looking bleaker than ever before. The Congressional ‘super-committee’ established by the debt ceiling negotiations will have to decide by November 23rd some manner to reduce the deficit by $1.5 trillion or face potentially unpopular automatic spending cuts to defense and discretionary spending (though USA Today writes that these “threats” have failed in the past). None of the rumored super-committee members seem to be from regions that would require their support of the ethanol industry

The ‘ethanol compromise’ had legs because it funneled money into the domestic ethanol industry while still maintaining a facade of deficit reduction. It would have collected $2 billion in revenue from the ending of the domestic tax credit as of July 21 and used a small amount less than that to spend on items near and dear to the ethanol industry (mainly ongoing support for cellulosic ethanol and money for the installation of blender pumps at fueling stations), hence their support.

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Post image for Wesley Clark on Ethanol

In an appearance on E&E TV, retired General Wesley Clark discusses the future of corn ethanol policy. Transcript here. Given that he is a member of Growth Energy, completely objectivity isn’t expected. However, he makes a number of incorrect statements and supports very poor economic analysis.

CLARK: And so we’re behind in cellulosic because we’ve been artificially constrained in the fuels market, first by the EPA blend wall at 10 percent, which meant there was no market for cellulosic. And then secondly then by the lack of infrastructure to be able to actually go out to the service agent and say, hey, I want to try 20 to 30 percent ethanol blend.

Cellulosic ethanol production is “behind” because its not economical, and investors are aware that the current market for cellulosic ethanol relies almost entirely on a government law that clearly isn’t guaranteed given how difficult it is to produce cellulosic ethanol at a price that is even close to something consumers would want.

Clark also complains about the 10% “blend wall” yet doesn’t acknowledge that the majority of ethanol sold is due to an “artificial” government mandate. I’d gladly end the EPA’s ability to determine what American’s can put in their gas tanks just as I’d gladly end the mandate requiring refiners to blend petroleum with ethanol.

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Post image for USDA Doubles Down on Ethanol – Blender Pumps

The ethanol industry has found a friend — the US Department of Agriculture. The industry will be less reliant on new legislation to encourage ethanol consumption, thanks to a new USDA announcement that the department will begin funding grants and loan guarantees for gas stations that choose to install new E-85 blender pumps. This was one of the primary legislative goals of the renewable fuels lobbyists.

The funding for the program will be provided by the 2008 farm bill which included funding that can be used to promote renewable energy development. The total fund amounts to $70 million in 2011 and another $70 million in 2012.

From the article:

Most gasoline sold in the U.S. is 10% ethanol, but a growing fleet of flexible-fuel vehicles can run on an 85%-ethanol blend, or E85. However, there are fewer pumps available to dispense it, Mr. Vilsack said.

In the U.S., only about 2,350 fueling stations out of more than 110,000 offer E85 pumps, according to the USDA.

It’s obvious why gasoline retailers are hesitant to install E-85 pumps, adjusting for energy content its not a better deal than gasoline.

When really pressed on why the USDA and the Obama administration continue to support corn based ethanol, they point to using it as helping support the fledgling cellulosic ethanol industry, which seems to always be just 5 years away from commercial viability.