Rethinking Ethanol: A Lesson Only Half Learnt by the NY Times

Sunday’s NY Times acknowledges that:

It is time to end an outdated tax break for corn ethanol and to call a timeout in the fivefold increase in ethanol production mandated in the 2007 energy bill.

But then it goes on to state:

This does not mean that Congress should give up on biofuels as an important part of the effort to reduce the country’s dependency on imported oil and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. What it does mean is that some biofuels are (or are likely to be) better than others, and that Congress should realign its tax and subsidy programs to encourage the good ones. Unlike corn ethanol, those biofuels will not compete for the world’s food supply and will deliver significant reductions in greenhouse gases…

Congress’s guiding principle should be to tie federal help to environmental performance. The goal is not just to stop the headlong rush to corn ethanol but to use the system to bring to commercial scale promising second-generation biofuels — cellulosic ethanol derived from crop wastes, wood wastes, perennial grasses. These could provide environmental benefits and reduce dependence on oil without displacing food production.

But as noted on this blog previously, this is wishful thinking. Tilting the field to help cellulosic ethanol, whether directly through subsidies or indirectly through mandates, will inevitably make it more attractive for farmers to divert land and water to grow fuel rather than food. As a result some portion – perhaps even a large portion – of the resources that would otherwise be used for food production would go toward fuel production.

It is, therefore, naïve to claim that fuel production will not compete with food production. But the NY Times seems naïve about mandates, apparently assuming that mandates don’t entail costs, especially if they are in pursuit of goals it deems laudable.

One can get an inkling of the potentially disastrous effects of tilting the field toward biofuels (such as ethanol) from the Burmese experience regarding jatropha, a bush that can provide feedstock for biodiesel. The Wall Street Journal’s James Hookway reported last week that:

United Nations World Food Program officials say the storm wiped out much of Myanmar’s midyear rice harvest and add that grain stockpiles are dwindling because of the military’s jatropha drive. That makes it likely Myanmar’s plans to export rice this year to other needy nations such as Bangladesh will be scrapped…

The most notorious example of errant policy making reflects the fascination of 75-year-old junta leader Senior-Gen. Than Shwe with biodiesel as a way to break the country’s dependence on expensive imported oil.

In December 2005, the battle-hardened commander kicked off a nationwide campaign to grow jatropha, a squat, hardy bush that yields golf-ball-sized fruit containing a sticky, yellow liquid that can be made into fuel. His drive was similar to initiatives in other parts of the world, including the U.S., which encouraged farmers to grow corn, palm oil or other crops for biofuel and which are now facing criticism for driving up the price of food. [Emphasis added]

India, China and other countries grow jatropha on scrubby land where food crops can’t survive. But researchers say that in Myanmar, some of the country’s most fertile land has been converted to cultivating the shrub…

It isn’t clear how much of Myanmar’s arable land has been converted to jatropha cultivation. Organizations such as the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization warned the government about the risks of farming jatropha on land that could be used to grow food. But Gen. Than Shwe’s goal was to set aside an area the size of Belgium to grow jatropha – a huge commitment for Myanmar, which is roughly the size of France.

In 2006, the chief research officer at state-run Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise said Myanmar hoped to completely replace the country’s oil imports of 40,000 barrels a day with home-brewed, jatropha-derived biofuel. Other government officials declared Myanmar would soon start exporting jatropha oil.

Despite the military’s efforts, the jatropha campaign apparently has largely flopped in its goal of making Myanmar self-sufficient in fuel.

While this is an extreme example of poorly conceived policy, it should be kept in mind that the Burmese regime was pursuing what many consider to be a laudable goal – energy independence (with – who knows – possibly the hope of obtaining carbon credits). And what a totalitarian regime can effect with fiat (and sticks), other governments can accomplish with a combination of seemingly more benign policies, specifically subsidies and mandates (i.e., carrots and sticks), in pursuit of the same laudable goals.

The lesson from all this, which the NY Times doesn’t quite get (reiterating from the earlier post) isn’t that biomass – and farmers — shouldn’t play a role in helping meet our energy needs, but that “If farmers can profitably grow fuel rather than food through their own efforts, so be it. But we shouldn’t favor growing one over the other either through subsidies or indirectly through government mandates for so-called renewable fuels. And if anything should be subsidized or mandated, it shouldn’t be growing fuels. That would inevitably compete with food.”