Obama Commands the Impossible

Today’s New York Times reports that President Obama has “ordered the rapid development of technology to capture carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of coal,” as well as mandating the production of more corn-based ethanol and financing farmers to produce “cellulosic” ethanol from waste fiber.

You’ve got to like the president’s moxie.  Faced with his inability to pass health care reform and cap-and-trade, he now chooses to command the impossible and the inefficient.

Most power plants are simply not designed for carbon capture.  There isn’t any infrastructure to transport large amounts of carbon dioxide, and no one has agreed on where to put all of it.  Corn-based ethanol produces more carbon dioxide in its life cycle than it eliminates, and cellulosic ethanol has been “just around the corner” since I’ve been just around the corner.

However, doing what doesn’t make any economic sense makes a lot of political sense in Washington, because inefficient technologies require subsidies–in this case to farmers, ethanol processors, utilities, engineering and construction conglomerates, and a whole host of others.  Has the president forgotten that his unpopular predecessor started the ethanol boondogle (his response to global warming) and drove up the price of corn to the point of worldwide food riots? Hasn’t he read that cellulosic ethanol is outrageously expensive? Has he ever heard of the “not-in-my-backyard” phenomenon when it comes to storing something people don’t especially like?

Yeah, he probably has.  But the political gains certainly are worth the economic costs.  Think about it.  In the case of carbon capture, it’s so wildly inefficient that it can easily double the amount of fuel necessary to produce carbon-based energy.  What’s not to like if you’re a coal company, now required to load twice as many hopper cars?  What’s not to like if you’re a utility, guaranteed a profit and an incentive to build a snazzy, expensive new plant?  And what’s not to like if you’re a farmer, gaining yet another subsidy?