RFS

Post image for Ethanol Mandate: Proud Milestone in the Glorious History of Central Planning

Today on National Journal’s Energy Experts Blog, I post a comment celebrating the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) as a triumph of centralized economic planning. You think I’m joking? Far from it. The RFS is working at least as well as other central planning schemes!

Well, okay, the RFS would be funny if it weren’t so destructive. A new report by NERA Economic Consulting warns that the RFS is heading for a “death spiral” — a vicious circle in which rising fuel costs, declining sales, and dwindling biofuel credits make compliance increasingly “infeasible.”

In one scenario analyzed by NERA, the death spiral produces a 30% increase in gasoline prices and a 300% increase in the cost of diesel fuel in 2015. Potential adverse macroeconomic impacts include a “$770 billion decline in GDP and a corresponding reduction in consumption per household of $2,700.” Ludwig von Mises coined a term for such debacles: “Planned Chaos.” [click to continue…]

Post image for EPA Cuts 2012 Cellulosic Blending Target to Zero

“U.S. EPA has altered its cellulosic biofuel requirements for 2012 — from 8.65 million gallons to zero,” today’s Climatewire reports. In January, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated EPA’s 2012 cellulosic biofuels standard. “As a result,” Climatewire explains, ”obligated parties — oil companies required to show EPA that they blend biofuels in their fuel supply — won’t need to provide information on their compliance. The agency will submit refunds to companies that have submitted payments for 2012 cellulosic waiver credits.”

Who says there’s no justice in this world! For several years the EPA has fined refiners for not purchasing and blending ethanol made from switchgrass, wood chips, and other fibrous, non-edible plants. Refiners protested that there was no commercial cellulosic fuel to buy. The EPA argued that didn’t matter because the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) is meant to be “technology forcing.” The agency thus based each year’s cellulosic target on aspirational (rather than realistic) projections of how much cellulosic fuel would be produced. It then cheerfully collected fines for all the gallons of phantom fuel refiners did not blend.

The Court held that punishing refiners for what the ethanol industry failed to do is not “technology forcing”:

EPA applies the pressure to one industry (the refiners) [citation omitted], yet it is another (the producers of cellulosic biofuel) that enjoys the requisite expertise, plant, capital and ultimate opportunity for profit. Apart from their role as captive consumers, the refiners are in no position to ensure, or even contribute to, growth in the cellulosic biofuel industry. “Do a good job, cellulosic fuel producers. If you fail, we’ll fine your customers.” Given this asymmetry in incentives, EPA’s projection is not “technology-forcing” in the same sense as other innovation-minded regulations that we have upheld.

Zeroing out the RFS cellulosic blending targets established by the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) is long overdue. [click to continue…]

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 Hill Briefing Shreds Renewable Fuel Standard

This morning I attended a briefing on “The Renewable Fuel Standard: Pitfalls, Challenges, and the Need for Congressional Action in 2013.” Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense moderated a panel of six experts. Although each expert spotlighted a different set of harms arising from the RFS, reflecting the core concern of his or her organization, this was a team effort, with panelists frequently affirming each other’s key points. Collectively, they made a strong case that the RFS is a “costly failure.” The briefing’s purpose was to demonstrate the need for reform rather than outline a specific reform agenda. Panelists nonetheless agreed that, at a minimum, Congress should scale back the RFS blending targets for corn ethanol.

Kristin Sundell of ActionAid explained how the RFS exacerbates world hunger, undermining U.S. foreign aid and international security objectives. The RFS diverts 15% of the world corn supply from food to fuel, putting upward pressure on food prices. A recent Tufts University study estimates that U.S. ethanol expansion during the past 6 years cost developing countries more than $5.5 billion in higher prices for corn imports. In Guatemala, the additional expense ($28 million) in 2011 effectively cancelled out all U.S. food aid and agricultural assistance for that year. Food price spikes, partly due to the RFS, were a factor in the recent turmoil in the Middle East. ”Congress can’t control the weather, but they can control misguided energy policies that could cause a global food crisis,” Sundell said.

Kristin Wilcox of the American Frozen Food Institute discussed the RFS’s impact on food consumers. Corn is both the chief animal feed and an ingredient in about 75% of all frozen foods. Consequently, RFS-induced increases in corn prices drive up “the cost of producing a wide range of foods and leads to higher food bills for consumers.” In addition, when corn prices go up, so do the prices of other commodities that compete with corn such as wheat and soybeans. ”Our position is very simple,” Wilcox said: “food should be used to fuel bodies, not vehicle engines.” She concluded: “Trying to change the price at the pump should not burden consumers with increased prices in the grocery check out aisle.” [click to continue…]

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 CAFE, RFS Endanger Convenience Stores, Study Cautions

Today, the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) published a study on the challenges facing the more than 120,000 U.S. convenience stores that sell motor fuel in a market increasingly shaped by the competing requirements of two federal programs: renewable fuel standard (RFS, a.k.a. the ethanol mandate) and corporate average fuel economy (CAFE).

I may have more to say about the study in a later post, but the skinny is that RFS and CAFE may whipsaw the retail fuel outlets upon which most of us depend to fill our tanks. CAFE will decrease the amount of fuel purchased and the frequency of consumer transactions at convenience stores, while the RFS will force convenience stores to make costly investments in storage tanks and blender pumps to sell increasing amounts and percentages of high-ethanol blends.

The excerpts below from NACS’s press release paint a disturbing picture on an industry caught in the regulatory cross hairs:

“RFS and CAFE policies cannot coexist without substantial changes in the retail and vehicle markets to accommodate significantly higher concentrations of renewable fuels, an unlikely scenario given that we may not even meet current requirements as they stand in 2012,” said John Eichberger, NACS vice president of government relations and the author of the new NACS whitepaper, The Future of Fuels: An Analysis of Future Energy Trends and Potential Retail Market Opportunities.

The Renewable Fuels Standard, revised by Congress as part of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA), requires that increasing amounts of qualified renewable fuels be integrated into the motor fuels supply, culminating at a minimum of 36 billion gallons in 2022. This mandate was expected to increase renewables to approximately 20% to 25% of the overall gasoline market in 2022, about double the rate of 10.4% last year.

Meanwhile, in 2011 the Obama administration proposed new CAFE standards, which are expected to be finalized this summer, that seek to increase the average fleet fuel efficiency to an equivalent of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. The cumulative effect of the two mandates is that renewable fuels will be required to represent a significantly greater share of the market than originally anticipated — perhaps as much as 40%, or four times higher than today.

“This level of renewable fuels penetration in the market will impose significant economic burdens on the retail fuels market and consumers,” said Eichberger. “To meet such a high renewable fuels concentration, it is likely that most retailers in the country will have to replace their underground storage tank systems and fuel dispensers. For the convenience industry alone, this will require a minimum infrastructure investment that will add nearly $22 billion to the cost of retailing fuels.” [And where will they get the scratch, I wonder, with CAFE depressing motor fuel demand and sales?]

Even after this enormous infrastructure investment, it still may be impossible to satisfy the RFS, considering that only one in six consumers will drive vehicles capable of running on the mandated fuels. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects only 16% of on-road vehicles in 2022 will be flexible fuel vehicles.

“Unless something dramatic happens, we will hit the ‘blend wall’ within the next two years and will not be able to meet RFS requirements. This will trigger massive fines throughout the petroleum distribution system that will increase the cost to sell motor fuels,” said Eichberger.

An industry expert explains the problem to me as follows: [click to continue…]

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…]