Former U.S. senator and now lobbyist Jim Talent recently praised President Trump for not ending or even dialing back the Renewable Fuels Standard, a federal mandate which force-feeds billions of gallons of ethanol and biodiesel to American drivers, like it or not.
The fact that there is no natural market for ethanol, which may be “renewable” but isn’t energy efficient, doesn’t seem to bother Talent, who served in the House before representing Missouri in the Senate between 2002 and 2006.
It’s astonishing that Talent could write that ethanol “saves consumers at the pump.” We could prove that by abolishing the RFS tomorrow and watching to see if consumers keep buying it for all the savings. This much ought to be obvious, even to a lawyer/lobbyist/wonk like Talent.
But ethanol does have to be force-fed to Americans, because it costs them money. It contains less energy per gallon than gasoline. It takes 1.5 gallons of ethanol to equal the energy contained in a gallon of gasoline. That means your car doesn’t travel as far on ethanol-adulterated fuel, and you need to fill up sooner. Which costs you money.
Ethanol, which is corn alcohol, costs in other ways, too. Car engines and fuel delivery systems have to be “hardened” to handle ethanol-adulterated fuel, because alcohol is both highly corrosive and water-attractive. It accelerates internal rusting of fuel tanks and lines and, in car and other engines not designed for it, accelerates the deterioration of rubber and plastic seals, too, leading to leaks and potentially fires.
These are not problems for new cars designed to burn ethanol-laced “gas” (most “gas” sold in the United States is E10, 10 percent ethanol; the ethanol lobby is pushing for E15, 15 percent ethanol). But it is a huge problem for older vehicles, those made before the early 2000s. And there are still millions of them in service.
It is also a major problem for seasonal/outdoor power equipment because ethanol-adulterated fuel does not store as well nor as long. This leads to problems come spring, when the time comes to fire up the gummed-up lawn mower/tractor. Some outdoor power equipment manufacturers — Stihl chainsaws, for example — expressly warn owners against using ethanol-laced fuel.
And ethanol is a problem for every car, in terms of decreased fuel economy vs. 100 percent gasoline.Which is why it has to be mandated. Very few people, if given the free choice, would choose to fill their cars with a fuel that takes them less far and so costs them more.
Talent turns this simple, obvious logic on its head, asserting that getting rid of the mandate that forces people to buy ethanol-adulterated fuel would be “rolling back competition.” He surely doesn't believe this, because it would be an embarrassing display of economic
ignorance.Talent also says the RFS mandate “ensur[es] that U.S. biofuels can reach consumers at the gasoline pump, breaking a once-solid monopoly on motor fuels.” But if ethanol made economic sense, it wouldn’t be necessary to shove the proverbial funnel down the throats of American drivers. The free market would ensure the success of ethanol and other biofuels in the same way that the market has made sure that Starbucks coffee is available on every street corner. No “Starbucks Coffee Standard” needed.
As a "policy analyst" at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, it is startling that Talent doesn't understand this. The fact is ethanol, like electric cars, has so far been unable to compete on the merits. Its continued use and the prosperity of its industry depend on the government shoving a bayonet in the backsides of American drivers.
And the ethanol lobby uses its considerable resources to curry favor with and strong-arm current and former lawmakers to press for legislative favors that keep this crony capitalist con alive and profitable. Ironically, the one element of the renewable fuels boondoggle that did make some sense is the one Talent and other corn-pushers oppose. It is a rule change was proposed that would at least have given ethanol producers and distributors credit (with the EPA) for selling surplus renewables to other countries. This would put money in Americans' hands, without putting as much corrosive, fuel-inefficient ethanol in the tanks of Americans' cars.
Talent calls this a “dodge” in his recent op-ed piece on the subject. Meanwhile, he and others in his camp are pushing for an expansion of the RFS mandate; that more rather than less ethanol be produced and force-fed to Americans.
This language may sound harsh, but it’s reality. The ethanol lobby isn’t “asking” that ethanol be produced or purchased.You can't say "no thanks" to a mandate. President Trump might want to look into the reality of renewables, as opposed to the disingenuous special interest PR peddled by Talent and others. He ought to ask the question that arguably got him elected: Who benefits?
Is it the American driver? Is it America? Or is it a handful of politically powerful corn pushers, talking up "renewable fuels" for the sake of padding their own pockets at the expense of Americans and America?
Eric Peters is an automotive journalist and author.
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