EPA fines oil refiners for failing to use nonexistent biofuel

posted at 8:41 pm on June 22, 2012 by Howard Portnoy

Question: Do you fill your car’s tank with gasoline that is part cellulosic ethanol, an environment-friendly distillate of wood chips, corn cobs, and switch grass? Let me answer for you: No, you don’t. You couldn’t if you wanted to. Petroleum products blended with cellulosic ethanol aren’t commercially available, because the technology for mass-producing cellulosic ethanol hasn’t been perfected. None of which has stopped the Environmental Protection Agency  from imposing hefty yearly fines on oil refiners. According to the The New York Times, in 2011 automotive fuel producers were assessed $6.8 million in penalties. That amount is expected to climb dramatically this year. Guess who ends up footing the bill for the difference?

This has got to be the ultimate example of government bureaucracy gone mad. How did it happen? Blame can be divided over the last two administrations. In his 2006 State of the Union Address, George W. Bush promised to “fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn, but from wood chips and stalks or switch grass.” The following year, Bush signed into law the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA), which mandates that oil refiners begin blending cellulosic ethanol into their gasoline and diesel products.

The “advanced biofuel contribution” under the law was to begin in 2009 at 0.6 billion gallons of cellulosic biomass and rise incrementally, first to 1.35 billion gallons in 2011, then to 2 billion gallons in 2012, and so on. By 2022, 21 billion gallons of fuel pumped into the nation’s cars and trucks was to be cellulosic ethanol.

The law further stipulated that if refiners failed to comply with the EPA mandate, they would pay a penalty.

The only problem with this arrangement was that the grant recipients responsible for coming up with Bush’s “cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol … from wood chips and stalks or switch grass” instead came up empty. In a 2011 report, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that “currently, no commercially viable bio-refineries exist for converting cellulosic biomass to fuel.” The report also noted that the renewable fuel standard “may be an ineffective policy for reducing global greenhouse gas emissions,” since the full life cycle of the fuel, including its transport, could lead to higher emissions than conventional petroleum.

Undaunted, the Obama administration has forged blindly ahead, continuing the elusive search for a technology that will produce cellulosic biomass—at taxpayers’ expense. Since thanks to the EPA mandate we are already paying more at the pump, the American people are truly getting nothing for something.

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