Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Gasohol Two-Step

If you want to understand why people are so down on the American biofuel industry, look no further than the ethanol trade relationship between Brazil and the United States. Last year, the US imported 9.6 million barrels of ethanol from Brazil. And yet Brazil imported 2 million barrels from the US.

How does that happen, you ask? Here’s how it works. The US has a renewable fuel standard that sets quotas for both corn-based ethanol and ethanol produced from “advanced” sources like cellulose or sugarcane. But actual production of those “advanced” biofuels has fallen woefully short of those mandates. To meet that shortfall, producers import sugarcane ethanol from Brazil, where the sugarcane industry is heavily subsidized.

Once you add those 9.6 million barrels of advanced Brazilian ethanol to the vast quantities of corn ethanol producers are churning out to meet the other side of the mandate, the US is left with more ethanol than can be safely blended in to gasoline. As a result, we ended up shipping 2 million barrels of corn ethanol right back to Brazil.

The environmental cost of shuttling these barrels back and forth across the globe makes this more than just an absurd story of misguided government policy. The fact that this program is effectively subsidizing needless voyages by high-emitting ships makes a mockery of biofuel’s dubious status as a “green” program.
The gasohol mandate in the United States is a bit of bi-partisan insanity.  It does not save appreciable energy, or produce less carbon dioxide than straight fossil fuels, it actively damages functioning engines, it's environmentally a nightmare, and it deprives the world's poor of cheap food by converting food to vehicle fuel.  The only people it benefits are the ag businesses the mandate helps artificially support, and the politicians they contribute to.

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