ethanol mandate

Post image for Ethanol Mandate Waiver: Decks Stacked Against Petitioners

The Governors of Georgia, Texas, Arkansas, Delaware, Maryland, New Mexico, and North Carolina have petitioned EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to waive the mandatory ethanol blending requirements established by the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). The petitioners hope thereby to lower and stabilize corn prices, which recently hit record highs as the worst drought in 50 years destroyed one-sixth of the U.S. corn crop. Corn is the principal feedstock used in ethanol production.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Bebe’s letter to Administrator Jackson concisely makes the case for regulatory relief:

Virtually all of Arkansas is suffering from severe, extreme, or exceptional drought conditions. The declining outlook for this year’s corn crop and accelerating prices for corn and other grains are having a severe economic impact on the State, particularly on our poultry and cattle sectors. While the drought may have triggered the price spike in corn, an underlying cause is the federal policy mandating ever-increasing amounts corn for fuel. Because of this policy, ethanol production now consumes approximately 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop, and the cost of corn for use in food production has increased by 193 percent since 2005 [the year before the RFS took effect]. Put simply, ethanol policies have created significantly higher corn prices, tighter supplies, and increased volatility.

Agriculture is the backbone of Arkansas’s economy, accounting for nearly one-quarter of our economic activity. Broilers, turkeys, and cattle — sectors particularly vulnerable to this corn crisis — represent nearly half of Arkansas’s farm marketing receipts. Arkansas poultry operators are trying to cope with grain cost increases and cattle familes are struggling to feed their herds.

Section 211(o)(7) of the Clean Air Act (CAA) authorizes the EPA to waive all or part of the RFS blending targets for one year if the Administrator determines, after public notice and an opportunity for public comment, that implementation of those requirements would “severely harm” the economy of a State, a region, or the United States. Only once before has a governor requested an RFS waiver. When corn prices soared in 2008, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas requested that the EPA waive 50% of the mandate for the production of corn ethanol. Perry, writing in April 2008, noted that corn prices were up 138% globally since 2005. He estimated that rising corn prices had imposed a net loss on the State’s economy of $1.17 billion in 2007 and potentially could impose a net loss of $3.59 billion in 2008. At particular risk were the family ranches that made up two-thirds of State’s 149,000 cattle producers. Bush EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson rejected Perry’s petition in August 2008.

In the EPA’s Request for Comment on the 2012 waiver petitions, the agency indicates it will use the same “analytical approach” and “legal interpretation” on the basis of which Johnson denied Perry’s request in 2008. This means the regulatory decks are stacked against the petitioners. As the EPA reads the statute, CAA Section 211(o)(7) establishes a burden of proof that is nearly impossible for petitioners to meet. No matter how high corn prices get, or how serious the associated economic harm, the EPA will have ready-made excuses not to waive the corn-ethanol blending requirements. [click to continue…]

Post image for Pressure Grows on EPA to Suspend Ethanol Mandate

The worst drought in 50 years has destroyed one-sixth of the U.S. corn crop. The USDA’s World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WSDE) report, released Friday, projects the smallest corn crop in six years and the lowest corn yields per acre since 1995.

As acreage, production, and yields declined, corn prices spiked. Last week, corn futures hit a record high of $8.29-3/4 per bushel.

If corn prices remain  high through 2013, livestock producers who use corn as a feedstock will incur billions of dollars in added costs. “These additional costs will either be passed on to consumers through increased food prices, or poultry farmers will be forced out of business,” warn the National Chicken Council and National Turkey Federation.

Even before the drought hit, corn prices were high. Prices increased from $2.00 a bushel in 2005/2006 to $6.00 a bushel in 2011/2012, notes FarmEcon LLC. A key inflationary factor is the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), commonly known as the ethanol mandate. Since 2005, the RFS has required more and more billions of bushels to be used to fuel cars rather than feed livestock and people.

Suspension of the mandate would allow meat, poultry, and dairy producers to compete on a level playing field with ethanol producers for what remains of the drought-ravaged crop. That would reduce corn prices, benefiting livestock producers and consumers alike.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has authority under the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) to waive the RFS blending targets, in whole or in part, if she determines that those requirements “would severely harm the economy or environment of a State, a region, or the United States.” The pressure on her to do so is mounting. [click to continue…]

Post image for Ethanol Reduced Gas Prices by $1.09/gal. – Or Didn’t You Notice?

Iowa State University’s Center for Agricultural and Rural Development (CARD) has just updated its 2009 and 2011 studies of ethanol’s impact on gasoline prices. CARD claims that from January 2000 to December 2011, “the growth in ethanol production reduced wholesale gasoline prices by $0.29 per gallon on average across all regions,” and that in 2011 ethanol lowered gasoline prices by a whopping $1.09 per gallon.

I’m no econometrician, but this study does not pass the laugh test. We’re supposed to believe that ethanol has conferred a giant boon on consumers even though gasoline prices have increased as ethanol production has increased, and even though gas prices hit their all-time high when ethanol production hit its all-time high. If that is success, what would failure look like?

CARD’s argument boils down to this. The gasoline sold at the pump today is E-10 — motor fuel blended with 10% ethanol. Ethanol thus makes up 10% of the motor fuel supply for passenger cars. If there were no ethanol, the motor fuel supply would be 10% smaller, and gas prices would be $1.09 per gallon higher (p. 6).

Well, sure, if we assume a drop in supply and no change in demand, prices will rise. But this scenario tells us nothing about what really matters — whether ethanol’s policy privileges, especially the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), a.k.a., the ethanol mandate, benefit or harm consumers.*

Note first that even in the absence of government support, billions of gallons of ethanol would be sold each year anyway as an octane booster. So a scenario in which 10% of the motor fuel supply simply disappears does not correspond to any policy choice Congress is actually debating or considering.

More importantly, CARD assumes that if the motor fuel supply were 10% smaller, refiners would not increase output to sell more of their product at higher prices. In other words, refiners would not engage in the economically-rational, profit-maximizing behavior that would bring supply back into balance with demand, thereby moderating the initial price increase.

Why wouldn’t they? There are only two possible explanations. One is that refiners don’t want to get rich, which is absurd. The other is that refiners operate like a cartel, colluding to restrict output in order to charge monopoly rents. CARD gives no sign of endorsing this view, and repeated investigations of the U.S. refining industry by the Federal Trade Commission repeatedly fail to find evidence of such anti-competitive scheming.

CARD’s analysis also ignores the opportunity costs of ethanol’s policy props. Capital is a finite resource. Every dollar refiners are forced or bribed to spend on ethanol is a dollar they cannot spend to produce gasoline. Government cannot rig the market in favor of ethanol without discouraging gasoline production. It is ridiculous to assume that all of the resources (e.g., refining capacity) commandeered by federal policy over the past decade to boost ethanol’s market share would have been left idle and not used to make gasoline in a free market.

In short, CARD’s analysis abstracts from the most basic economic realities we were all supposed to learn in Econ 101: resources are finite, choices have opportunity costs, and incentives (prices) matter.

I leave it to econometricians to quantify the repercussions, but this much is clear. In a free market, refiners would have blended less ethanol and produced more gasoline than they did in the market rigged by the RFS and other pro-ethanol policies. CARD — or, more precisely, CARD’s sponsors, the Renewable Fuel Association (RFA) — would have us believe that refiners would produce no more gasoline in a free market than they would in a market politicized by mandates and subsidies. That assumption is so unrealistic that any analysis based upon it is inappropriate and even fraudulent if used as a justification for maintaining or expanding government support for ethanol. [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 EPA Sets 2012 Biofuel Requirements

Yesterday the EPA finalized the 2012 mandate for blending biofuels into our nation’s transportation fuel supply:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today finalized the 2012 percentage standards for four fuel categories that are part of the agency’s Renewable Fuel Standard program (RFS2). EPA continues to support greater use of renewable fuels within the transportation sector every year through the RFS2 program, which encourages innovation, strengthens American energy security, and decreases greenhouse gas pollution.

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) established the RFS2 program and the annual renewable fuel volume targets, which steadily increase to an overall level of 36 billion gallons in 2022. To achieve these volumes, EPA calculates a percentage-based standard for the following year. Based on the standard, each refiner and importer determines the minimum volume of renewable fuel that it must ensure is used in its transportation fuel.

The final 2012 overall volumes and standards are:

Biomass-based diesel (1.0 billion gallons; 0.91 percent)
Advanced biofuels (2.0 billion gallons; 1.21 percent)
Cellulosic biofuels (8.65 million gallons; 0.006 percent)
Total renewable fuels (15.2 billion gallons; 9.23 percent)

In a nod to how hard it is to predict the future, the EPA has lowered the cellulosic biofuel mandate from 500 billion gallons to a less ambitious 8.65 million gallons, which is 1.7% of the original planned requirement. Of course, they have done the same in previous years and as of October no qualifying cellulosic ethanol had been sold to refiners. Naturally, refiners are not pleased that in 2012 they will possibly be spending up to $8 million in credits depending upon actual production levels of cellulosic ethanol:

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Post image for Ethanol’s Future and the Tax Credit Expiration

It’s now all but certain that the ethanol tax credit will expire at the end of the year, and the ethanol producers continue to claim credit for “giving it up” despite that it was obviously lost due to larger political considerations, and the fact that they lobbied initially for its extension and then eventually for a substitute which would have still funneled money into their industry. The tariff on ethanol imports also expires at the end of the year, and is likely to expire, though a bill was just introduced to extend it. It has no chance of passing through normal legislative means but its not impossible for it to be attached to larger omnibus bills in order to appease ethanol interests.

There are a few problems here. First, restrictions on trade are not normally good, but the fact that much of ethanol consumption is due to the renewable fuel standard mandate (and not market forces) complicates things. If imports of sugarcane ethanol are merely going to cut down on corn ethanol consumption/production, then it seems that the removal of the trade barrier would be a neutral/good thing. However, if imports of sugarcane ethanol require that Americans purchase additional ethanol relative to a baseline with the tariff, then an argument could be made for keeping the tariff. There are also other longer term political considerations: if sugarcane ethanol is kept out, the corn ethanol folks might lobby to lift the cap on corn ethanol and allow it to qualify as an advanced biofuel. Or, Congress might scrap the advanced biofuel RFS altogether as cellulosic ethanol is yet to exist.

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Post image for Do Biofuel Mandates and Subsidies Imperil Food Security?

Do biofuel mandates and subsidies inflate food prices? Do they increase world hunger ? There was a rip-roaring debate on the food security impacts of biofuel policies in 2007-2008, when sharp spikes in wheat, corn, and rice prices imperiled an estimated 100 million people in developing countries. Food price riots broke out in Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Indonesia, Mexico, Mozambique, Senegal, Somalia, and Yemen.

Experts attributed the rapid rise in food prices to several factors including high petroleum prices, drought in Australia, a weak U.S. dollar, commodity speculation, and rising demand for grain-fed meat by China’s rapidly expanding middle class. But some also laid part of the blame on biofuel policies, which artificially increase global demand for corn and soy while diverting those crops and farmland from food to fuel production. A July 2008 World Bank report argued that biofuel policies accounted for as much as two-thirds of the 2007-2008 price spike. A July 2010 World Bank report, on the other hand, concluded that rising petroleum prices were the dominant factor. “Biofuels played some role too, but much less than previously thought,” the report stated.

Where does the debate stand today? Recent reports by the National Research Council (NRC), the New England Complex Systems Institute (CSI), the UN Committee on World Food Security (CWFS), and Iowa State University (ISU) all acknowledge that biofuel policies put upward pressure on food and feed prices. The NRC and ISU studies argue that U.S. biofuel policies have only modest impacts on grain prices whereas the CSI and CWFS studies indicate that biofuel policies contributed significantly to the 2008 global food crisis and/or pose significant risks to global food security today.

Links to these reports and key excerpts follow. [click to continue…]