A new study by the Energy Research Policy Foundation, Inc. (EPRINC) further debunks the popular talking point of USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and the Renewable Fuel Association (RFA) that ethanol reduced gasoline prices by $0.89/gal in 2010 and $1.09/gal in 2011.
As noted previously on this site (here and here), Vilsack and the RFA tout a study by Iowa State University’s Center for Agricultural Research and Development (CARD), which concluded that if ethanol production had remained at year 2000 levels, the U.S. motor fuel supply would have been billions of gallons smaller and, thus, significantly pricier in 2010 and 2011. Subsequent studies by FarmEcon, LLC and MIT/UC Davis spotlighted CARD’s unrealistic assumption that the refining industry would not have increased gasoline production to meet consumer demand in the absence of policies mandating and subsidizing the blending and sale of increasing quantities of ethanol as motor fuel.
The EPRINC study (Ethanol’s Lost Promise: An Assessment of the Economic Consequences of the Renewable Fuel Mandate) shows, in addition, that if ethanol output had remained constant at the year 2000 level, refiners could have made up for the shortfall without importing or even refining “a single additional barrel of crude oil.” The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) has increased ethanol production by about 400,000 barrels per day (bbl/d) since 2000. A “remarkably small operational adjustment” in refineries’ product mix — a 1.8% increase in gasoline production — could have covered an ethanol shortfall of 400,000 bbl/d in 2011.
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Back in May, I discussed a study conducted for the Renewable Fuel Association (RFA) by Iowa State University’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Development (CARD). The study 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 reduced average gasoline prices by a whopping $0.89 per gallon in 2010 and $1.09 per gallon in 2011. Ethanol boosters like the RFA and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack tout this study as proof that federal biofuel policies benefit consumers and should be expanded.
The CARD researchers, Xiaodong Du and Dermot Hayes, attempt to determine the consumer benefit of ethanol by inferring what motor fuel prices would have been over the past decade had there been no increase in ethanol production. Ethanol now constitutes roughly 10% of the motor fuel used by U.S. passenger vehicles. Du and Hayes conclude that without ethanol, U.S. motor fuel supply would be significantly smaller and pain at the pump significantly greater.
This procedure, I argued, is ridiculous. First, it assumes that refiners are like deer caught in the headlights and do not respond to incentives. Even if motor fuel prices increase by up to $1.09/gal nationwide over a 10-year period, we’re supposed to believe refiners would not increase output and take advantage of this opportunity to sell more of their product at higher prices. But that’s exactly what refiners would do. In the process, supply would come back into balance with demand, pushing fuel prices down.
Second, the CARD study ignores the opportunity costs of ethanol policy. Capital is a finite resource. Dollars that refiners are mandated or bribed to invest in ethanol production are dollars they cannot invest in gasoline production. The CARD study implausibly assumes that all the refining capacity diverted by federal policy into ethanol production would have been left idle in a free market and not used to produce gasoline instead.
Admittedly, the CARD study is full of math I don’t understand. But two experts in the field — MIT energy economics professor Christopher Knittel and UC Davis agricultural economics professor Aaron Smith — have just produced a technical critique of the CARD study. Titled “Ethanol Production and Gasoline Prices: A Spurious Correlation,” the researchers make several telling points, some of which are funnier than the standard fare found in the ‘dismal science.’ [click to continue…]