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Obama Administration defends ethanol mandates despite economic distortions

By | July 27th, 2012

“When everyone says you’re drunk, you’d better sit down.” When both The Wall Street Journal and NPR have questions about a policy, it’s time to rethink it.

The Renewable Fuel Standard’s ethanol mandate requires an increasing amount of ethanol be blended in gasoline every year. Last year, more than a third of America’s corn crop went to ethanol; this year, with decreased production and increased diversion, that proportion is expected to rise to at least 40%. This requirement has pitted ethanol producers against food and feed consumers of corn, driving up corn prices even faster than normal supply shortages would dictate.

The EPA could, if it chose, suspend the ethanol mandate altogether for the year, but so far has chosen not to do so. Not only Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, but Interior Secretary Ken Salazar have been strong supporters of ethanol. On July 16, 2008, Salazar, then a U.S. Senator from Colorado, spoke on the floor of the Senate in terms of ethanol’s contribution to America’s “energy independence,” its importance in keeping gas prices down, and the jobs that were then being created on Colorado’s eastern plains in the new ethanol plants being opened there.

The Obama Administration may have been caught off guard by the severity of the current drought, but questions about price distortions caused by the mandate aren’t new. Last year, in February of 2011, Vilsack addressed exactly these same concerns at a press conference [See CNSNews.com video above]:

“Certainly not worried in the long term about our capacity to produce enough corn to meet our food and feed needs as well as our fuel needs. The last time we had any issue relative to food prices when this issue was raised about ethanol production, our studies indicated that the ethanol production was a very, very, very small percentage of the food price increases.

“When you look at food price increases, you’re looking more at marketing, advertising, refrigeration, transportation, expenses that are incurred in the food chain. And you’re also recognizing that farmers are receiving an ever shrinking share of the retail food dollar. There are a lot of folks that have to be satisfied out of that retail dollar.

“So I’m not concerned about it. We obviously will continue to look at what the Spring will bring, in terms of cropping decisions. Part of what’s happening worldwide is the result of weather conditions in a number of countries. Export controls and restrictions by some countries have made it a little more difficult. But here in this United States, we’re anticipating food prices to rise somewhere between 2-3%, which is relatively moderate.”

The problem, of course, is that neither people nor livestock can wait for the long run to eat. It may be easy enough for us to adjust to some food price increases, but folks living closer to the margin, as in Mexico, don’t have that luxury. See Egypt for what happens when entire countries have to choose between food and fuel.

And while Vilsack has correctly identified the price inputs into food production, he’s forgotten that prices change because of action on the margin, and the price of corn has proven to be especially volatile, but also especially remunerative to farmers in recent years. A large part of this increase is a result of the ethanol mandate. And contrary to Sec. Vilsack’s protestations that little of the money is flowing through to farmers, agricultural land values have been shooting through the roof, indicating that investors see corn production as a good investment.

The winners include ethanol producers, who are guaranteed a market for their product, corn farmers, who see the results of the government bidding against private ranchers and farmers for their product, and fertilizer companies, whose nitrogen-based product is needed to save the soil from the increased corn crop. Much of the increased corn planting takes place at the expense of soybeans, which replenish the soil. (As a side note, a major component of fertilizer is natural gas; the combination of falling natural gas prices and rising corn plantings has been a windfall for those companies, so to the extent that the farm vote is in play, look for politicians to make hay with that.)

The losers include ranchers, who are having to bid against the government for corn to feed their herds, and you. Because not only are food prices rising faster than your paycheck, there’s little to no statistical evidence that all this diversion of food to fuel is keeping gas prices down. And in spite of the mandates, ethanol plants are shutting down, anyway.

For decades, as their agriculture became a running joke, the Soviet Union used to blame chronic food shortages and poor crops on the weather. A Russian history professor of mine responded to a student’s question about Gorbachev’s political prospects, “Well, he’s got his main rival (Yeltsin) in charge of agriculture, so I’d say he’s in pretty good shape.”

It’s doubtful that Barack Obama felt threatened by Vilsack’s presidential ambitions (his abortive presidential run ended in early 2007, about a year before his home-state Iowa Caucuses), but it’s likely that Vilsack will end up as collateral damage of this Administration’s misbegotten economic and energy policies, nevertheless, when he finds himself – hopefully – looking for work after the November elections.

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