Unachievable Government Ethanol Mandate Drives Gasoline Prices Higher


Gasoline pump

As noted at Reason 24/7, gas prices are going up, and federal rules mandating the use of ethanol seem to be responsible for at least part of the price hikes. Among the many, many components of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007was a requirement that U.S. use of biofuels increase from 4.7 billion gallons in 2007 to 36 billion gallons in 2022. The number seemed to have been pulled from the air, since nobody can really know what fuel requirements will be years in the future, although continuing growth in demand for gasoline was assumed. In fact, though, gasoline use has slid since the year the law passed, from 3,389,269,000 barrels per year to 3,185,312,000 barrels per year*. And car manufacturers advise against using gasoline blended with more than ten percent ethanol, unless the car was designed for it, which most aren't. But companies that supply gasoline are still required to increase biofuel consumption, which means ethanol, because that's what's available, so …

As the United States Energy Information Administration puts it:

With almost all gasoline in the United States already blended with 10% ethanol (E10), significant increases in domestic consumption of ethanol as required under the RFS2 over future years will be challenging unless higher-percentage ethanol blends can achieve significant market penetration. E10 was the maximum ethanol blend allowed for use in most of the vehicle fleet until 2011, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved the use of 15% ethanol blends (E15) in all light-duty vehicles from model years 2001 or later. Many ethanol producers have been approved by EPA to sell their ethanol for blending into E15, but as of August 2012, only one retailer in Kansas had announced that it has E15 for sale.

As with most matters government-ish, there is an odd way around the dilemma of being mandated to sell something that nobody wants to buy. Gasoline companies can purchase "renewable identification numbers" also referred to as "ethanol compliance credits." Buying ethanol compliance credits is like, well, buying indulgences from the medieval church. And gas producers need a lot of indulgences as the demand for gasoline falls even while requirements for biofuel use rise. Which has driven the cost of credits from a few cents last year to over a dollar in recent weeks.

That's a big hike in the cost of production for gasoline companies even as demand drops.

Gasoline consumption
U.S. Energy Information Administration

As the New York Times reports:

Refiners have been trading so-called ethanol credits furiously in an effort to meet federal environmental mandates, helping to significantly push up the cost of those credits — a jump to more than $1 from a few pennies in the last several days, and drivers are feeling the effects, experts say.

Prices for premium gas are now about 30.2 cents over the price of regular, according to Trilby Lundberg of the Lundberg Survey. That is up from 24.1 cents in 2010 and 18.2 cents in 2000. Any increases could affect about a third of this year's car models, because premium fuel is required or recommended for them, according to

Experts disagree on the reasons for a widening gap between the costs of regular and premium gas. Reasons for the ethanol surplus are even more broadly in dispute, between producers and the oil companies. Gas companies are required under federal law to blend a certain number of gallons of ethanol into the fuel. But refiners argue that some cannot reach that requirement because they are nearing or at the so-called blend wall, the maximum percentage of ethanol in gasoline that most gas stations can handle, 10 percent. They also note that is the maximum level recommended by auto manufacturers for most cars.

Refiners blame Congress, arguing that the ethanol quota was set at a time when gasoline demand was expected to rise steadily. Instead, demand has declined, and refiners, obligated to blend more ethanol than they can actually use, have resorted to buying a lot of ethanol credits, known as renewable identification numbers (or RINs), to meet the mandated levels.

Note that the biofuel mandate also drives food prices up because ethanol is made from corn, which people and animals eat. So fuel mandates are competing with demand for food. The law actually foresaw this problem, by requiring that fuel producers start buying biofuels that isn't mafe from food crops— the use of 8.7 million gallons was required in 2012. But that generated another problem, since only 20,000 gallons were actually produced. Citing that little glitch, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia vacated the 2012 rules.

The EPA responded by setting 2013 requirements at 14 million gallons.

But, while all of this stupid rulemaking and spiteful bureaucracy is eminently mockable, how does it drive gasoline prices through through roof? As the Times adds:

There are two ways the ethanol credit issue could drive gas prices higher. Mr. Drevna said that refiners would probably seek to recover the cost of the credits, which were a mere seven cents or so at the beginning of this year, in the prices they charge. And Eric G. Lee, an analyst at Citi Research, said that some refiners might seek to avoid the ethanol requirement by exporting their gas, which could tighten supplies in the United States.

Questioning the wisdom of the federal government's whole biofuel mandate, Jen Alic, at the Christian Science Monitors writes:

Consumer groups are balking at a mandate they think could harm vehicles and leave car-owners stranded without insurance in the case of ethanol-related damage. All the pieces weren't put into place ahead of this mandate, and insurance companies are balking at the idea that they may have to fork out cash for any damage ethanol might cause to engines.

Unmeetable mandates involving nonexistent products, dynamically shifting markets defying lawmakers' predictions and costly bureaucratic work-arounds. Mull that over as you watch the numbers spin around at the pump.

And that's without even getting into the sad fact that the use of ethanol as fuel has driven corn prices high enough to cause riots in Mexico over the skyrocketing price of tortillas.

* I originally wrote "day" because the brain, it doesn't always work.

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  1. I think we can all agree that using food for fuel makes America the greatest country on Earth.

    1. Yeah, and the ethanol credits look like they’re about as effective and worthwhile as carbon credits…

    2. I used to run my car on Twinkies.

      1. No dude, you used to get so stoned that when you tried to drive to the store to get twinkies all you could manage to do was sit in the car staring into space for an hour.

        1. I thought he was talking about the old kid’s cars that you either peddled or pushed with your feet Flintstone’s style.

    3. Becoming energy independent is what makes America great. At least there’s one thing the two parties don’t gridlock on.

      Oil prices are invented by Big Oil. Everyone knows that. Ethanol is the only way to bring the Kochs to their knees!

      1. It’s all the fault of the sequester.

        1. And the damn libertarian majority!

    4. Ya know, the sarcasm has gotten so thick here that any new arrival may suspect the commentariat of being a bunch flaming liberals.

  2. One of the silver linings of the coming financial implosion of the United States Government is the fact that bullshit like this will definitely cease to matter.

    1. Yes, and I have actually come to look forward to it.

  3. This stupid thing needs to be REPEALED!

  4. If you put a dozen chimps in a room, threw in a couple of gallons of whiskey, a notepad and some crayons, then waited a couple of hours, I am sure they would come up with a more sensible energy plan than the absurd bullshit spilling out of washington. Jesus fuckin’ christ.

    Two barrels of oil per barrel of ethanol. 2/3 the energy per gallon of ethanol compared to gas. Skyrocketing food and gas prices.

    Where is fuckwit to tell us how this really is a good strategy in spite of having no upside?

    1. I’m pretty sure it would turn into a scat party. I used to read Goodall’s missives from Gombe in NG when I was kid.

      1. That doesn’t defeat his point. A scat party is more sensible than our current energy plan.

        1. I was merely pointing out that the crayons and notepads were superfluous.

      2. That was my point.

    2. You could actually just use some of the actual ethanol under discussion,instead of wasting whiskey, couldn’t you?

      1. Well, when you put it that way…..yes.

    3. Now it’s a farm subsidy. You’ll never get rid of it.

      Why do you hate the farmers?

  5. I’m reading a book about the Chinese famine caused by the Great Leap Forward, and this sounds sadly familiar to a lot of the pseudo-science and gov’t economic mandates which preceeded that disaster.

    Millions upon millions died of starvation, and no, the state didn’t collapse. In fact, the people became even more rapid, and had the Cultural Revolution.

    1. Unlike China, the U.S. doesn’t have a monolithic communist party running the show with an iron fist controlling all means of communications.

      The Tea Party would have been ruthlessly suppressed in China before it could coalesce into a political movement with traction.

      1. We do have a monolithic party. It’s called the Demopubican Party. It appears to be two parties, but no matter who wins, no programs started by the other party are ever scrapped. Spending and centralization continue at an accelerating rate no matter which of the two pseudo-parties are in office.

  6. “3,389,269,000 barrels per day”!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    The average American consumes about 10 BARRELS of gasoline per day?
    Who knew?

    1. Wow I’d have to drive my turbo charged fire breathing kraut rocket on extra asshole mode to do that.

  7. It isn’t gallons per day. The link is for annual gasoline consumption.

  8. Fuck ethanol. All that crap does is varnish the carbs in my bike when I don’t ride often enough.

    1. Why are you not riding it enough?

  9. Sometimes man you jsut have to roll with ti dude.

  10. Ethanol ruined the carbuerators in my snowblower and my mom’s lawnmower. Fuck Iowa. Why they dictate American fuel policy is beyond me.

    If gas stations go E15 I’m going to go postal on someone, hear?

    1. Ditto on the snowblower experience.

      Worrying now about the ’72 sedan in the garage; no ethanol free available in MA thanks to the wisdom of the state legislature. Pray for her!

      1. You’re going to need divine intervention for a ’72. You should have C4C’d it. The ethanol is going to destroy its gaskets eventually.

    2. I’ve been through two carbs on my lawnmower since ethanol mandates.

      The fuel really sucks for small engines subject to intermittent use.

  11. The other fantastic thing about things like ethanol blended fuels is their wonderful ability to make life miserable for people with older cars that have weaker fuel pumps or slightly clogged injectors.

    You simply need more ethanol to make a proper mixture over gasoline, so the engine requires more fuel be pumped and/or injectors have a higher duty cycle. If your car (or old truck like me) has an aging fuel pump or worn injectors, that across the board increase in the amount of fuel needed may be more than it can handle and you end up with detonation or rough spots.

    Basically, the need to flow more fuel is magnifying the effects of aging.

    I even saw this with my (now gone) Subaru. MTBE blended winter fuel always pushed right up against the lean compensation (forgot what it was actually called) threshold. The computer had only so much leeway over the stock tables to correct for individual variations and during the winter, the computer would always push near or right up against that threshold. When summer fuel came around, the variation would be something like 4-7% vs 20-25%. This was verified by logging injector duty cycle (Tactrix cable and RomRaider for those interested) for various drives and comparing them to logs taken during the summer.

    On a plus note, diesel drivers (got a Passat TDI now) don’t have to deal with this particular bunch of crap.

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