Study shows tax payers subsidizing ethanol at $4.18 per gallon

A new study by University of Missouri Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (PDF) reveals that the current corn ethanol tax credit is effectively costing tax payers $4.18 per gallon and is driving up grain prices. The study estimates that the tax credit, which would cost about $5.85 billion next year if extended, will lead to 1.4 billion gallons above the 12.6 billion gallons required by law through the Renewable Fuel Standard (see page 64).

In other words, next year the oil companies will be required to buy 12.6 billion gallons of conventional corn ethanol, but because tax payers are giving them $5.85 billion they'll consume 1.4 billion more than required. That works out to $4.18 per extra gallon.

As I've written before, having the tax credit on top of the RFS is like paying drivers to obey the speed limit. (Tip of the hat to Rapier for the analogy.) Some in the industry may be inclined to point to the additional 1.5 billion gallons as a justification for the tax credit, but the price tag should make that argument just silly. Taxpayers have been subsidizing the corn ethanol industry far too long at the expense of developing cleaner, more renewable biofuels.

Plus the FAPRI study also points out that the tax credit is leading to higher prices for corn and other grains--$0.18 per bushel of corn, $0.28 for soy, and $0.15 for wheat. And lest anyone argue that the tax credit is a good way of supporting farmer income, think about this: if we gave farmers an extra $0.15, $0.28, and $015 per bushel for every single one of the corn, soy, and wheat bushels they'll grow next year, it would cost just $3.56 billion. And we'd still have enough of the tax credit money left over to subsidies the extra 1.4 billion gallons to the tune of $1.64.

The FAPRI study's analysis of how the tax credit effects commodity crop prices also confirms the underlying economic truth of indirect land-use change. Higher prices for commodities mean that farmers here in the US and around the world will want to grow more. In those parts of the world where its cheaper to increase production by bringing new land into cultivation than increasing yields on existing lands, that's going to lead to land-use change. Not surprisingly, EPA's analysis, which uses the FAPRI model, finds that the emissions from this land-use change is one of the largest sources of emissions associated with corn ethanol.

Yesterday, Growth Energy had the audacity to argue that the tax credit lowers the price of gasoline. It's a cynical, shell-game claim, meant to earn support from drivers who are actually subsidizing this well established industry every April 15.

The simple fact of the matter is the current corn ethanol tax credit is a huge waste of money. We don't need an additional 1.4 billion gallons of corn ethanol, or the higher prices for grains and more deforestation that come with it. And we sure as heck don't need to be spending $4.18 per gallon to get it. The corn ethanol tax credit (and the biodiesel tax credit too) needs to end!

We have to be smarter about how we use our tax dollars. NRDC has proposed a greener biofuel tax credit that encourage competition among the technologies and only pay for real performance. It's time to transition from corn ethanol's pollution and pork to a new generation of more sustainable biofuels that brings us closer to real energy independence.