Ethanol subsidies, once considered a sacred cow, are facing the possibility of being axed from the budget. The Senate cast a deciding vote, 73-27 in repealing the 45 cent per gallon subsidy to refiners for blending gasoline with ethanol, and the 54 cent per gallon tariff on imported ethanol.

Cutting the ethanol subsidy and repealing the tariff still face an uphill battle as it must pass the house and get the signature of President Obama, who has vowed not to fully repeal the subsidy. Supporters of ethanol are fighting harder to preserve the subsidy and tariff, and are now issuing claims that the ethanol subsidy keeps gas prices lower than what they would be if the subsidy wasn’t in place.

Iowa State University released a study arguing that ethanol has helped suppress gasoline prices. It is of no surprise that supporters of the ethanol subsidy and tariff have embraced the study by Iowa State University with open arms and are using it to add weight to their position.

Unfortunately for supporters of the ethanol subsidy, the Institute for Energy Research, released its own study debunking the arguments from Iowa State. While the Institute for Energy Research admits that removing the ethanol subsidy will result in a short-term spike in gasoline prices, they argue that in the long run consumers are better off without the ethanol subsidy–ideally the country would’ve been better off if the subsidy had never existed.

Those who claim that removing the ethanol subsidy and tariff will increase gasoline prices also fail to acknowledge principles of basic market economics. By removing the tariff, the United States is able to import cheaper ethanol from countries like Brazil, which produce the cheaper sugar-based ethanol, thus making ethanol more affordable for consumers. As a result, the market adds a product to compete with gasoline, and through competition, may drive the price of gasoline lower.

The concept of competition driving down prices is explained by Joel Velasco, former chief representative in North America for the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association. Velasco argues that competition between corn and sugarcane ethanol will benefit consumers. The principle of competition found in his argument can be applied to competition between gasoline and ethanol as well.

While it may seem like ethanol from Brazil is a perfect solution, there are unintended consequences that must be weighed. Ecology professor at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, Luiz Martinelli, warns of the many problems with Brazilian ethanol in an article published in the Cornell Daily Sun. Martinelli explains that ethanol production pollutes the environment and results cause serious problems:

Ethanol production fosters deforestation in Brazil. Sugarcane needs a well-defined drought season to concentrate sugars in the cane stalk, making the wetter Amazon region less than ideal for growth. Consequently, growers convert increasing areas of land in the transitional area between the cerrado grasslands and the Amazon forests to sugarcane. As a result, the increase may indirectly lead to deforestation as other crops, like soybean, are pushed into the Amazon.

“We don’t have much room for deforestation. If sugarcane causes 1,000 of squared kilometers of deforestation, we’ve set off any savings [of avoided carbon emissions] that we have saved,” emphasized Martinelli.

Such unintended consequences were also articulated by Ray Nothstine on the PowerBlog in 2007 as religious leaders began to express alarm about increasing ethanol production:

Religious leaders are speaking out. In March, Roman Catholic bishops in Brazil warned that a rapid increase in ethanol production based on sugar cane could lead to widespread deforestation, massive relocation of workers and their communities, and harsh working conditions for cane cutters. Analysts predict that Brazil, the world’s largest exporter of ethanol, may increase ethanol production as much as 40 percent in the next four years. “We are going to turn the country into a huge cane (plantation),” said Cardinal Geraldo Majella Agnelo. In Colombia, Christian aid organizations say armed groups are driving peasants off their lands to make way for plantations of palm oil, another biofuel. Acreage dedicated to production of the palm oil tree has more than doubled in the last four years.

Nothstine later explains in “‘Big Corn’ and Unintended Consequences” how corn ethanol will increase food prices, is more costly to produce and transport, and has pollution problems.

If ethanol made from sugarcane gains traction in the United States and other countries, the same questions that have been raised by corn ethanol must also be asked when it comes to sugar-based ethanol. Will we have a problem with unintended consequences? Will sugar ethanol contribute to rising food prices in a manner similar to that of corn ethanol? What effects will sugar ethanol have on the environment, and what are the impacts of deforestation?


  • Michael Chovanec

    The day when the US corn ethanol subsidy is finally ended will be a great day for the country.  We stop subsidizing the use of food as vehicle fuel and food prices will fall as a result.  Win-win for taxpayers and consumers. 

    If importation and use of Brazilian sugar ethanol creates more environmental costs than other energy alternatives, a reasonable balancing or offset of those costs through importation restrictions or tariffs is reasonable but must be evaluated carefully to make certain that we are not simply incurring additional costs for fuel but with no net environmental benefit.  Hard headed and thought intensive calculations are, however, not well suited to the political process. 

    Mike 

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