Posts tagged with: gas

Blog author: lglinzak
posted by on Wednesday, June 22, 2011

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?

Gas prices are beginning to come down, but for many people prices are not falling fast enough.

The pain caused by high gas prices is spread widely, but it is felt intensely on the working poor and the unemployed who are trying to find a job.

A recent story in the Chicago Tribune highlights Alicia Madison, a resident of the Chicago suburbs who is unemployed. Madison is looking for a job, but because of high gas prices she, at times, cannot even afford to go to an interview:

Before a recent job interview, Alicia Madison climbed into her 2001 Ford Explorer and realized her gas tank was empty, just like her bank account.

Unable to afford gas for the 25-mile round trip from her Glen Ellyn home to the Naperville business, Madison was forced to reschedule. She now relies on gas vouchers issued by a nonprofit agency to drive to interviews.

Madison, a certified nursing assistant unemployed three months, is desperate to return to work, but not desperate enough to take a job too far from home with gas prices at record highs.

“I have to be conscious of where I’m looking and how far it’s going to be,” said Madison, 23, a single mother on food stamps. “I don’t want to work just to pay for gas.”

Her dilemma underscores the problem that steep gas prices have created for the unemployed: They need income to fill their tank but can’t afford to take jobs with long commutes.

Some job seekers say they are more selective now, curtailing face-to-face networking and ignoring some opportunities based on the high transportation costs.

As the article also points out, job seekers have to decide if the pay for a potential job is enough for them to make the daily commute. Is it worth working eight or nine hours a day when a good chunk of the earnings goes toward paying for the gas needed to get to work?

The hardships for low income workers are further explained by Greg McBride, Senior Financial Analyst at Bankrate.com. According to McBride, 72 percent of Americans who make less than $50,000 are cutting their discretionary spending. While cutting discretionary spending is what is needed to be a good financial steward when money is tight, McBride explains that higher gas prices hurt economic growth because they cause a decrease in consumer spending.

As Ray Nothstine argues in “High Gas Prices Devastating to Poor”, we should do everything we can to lighten the burden on the poor and lower gas prices. This will aid everyone, but especially those who are the most adversely affected by the high gas prices. One way to lower gas prices is to look no further than the free market, which is articulated again by Nothstine:

While we are bound to labor, 17th century Bible commentator and Presbyterian minister Matthew Henry reminds us, “Let not us, by inordinate care and labor, make our punishment heavier than God has made it; but rather study to lighten our burden.”

Similarly, John Paul II declared, “Besides the earth, man’s principal resource is man himself. His intelligence enables him to discover the earth’s productive potential and the many different ways in which human needs can be satisfied.”

This is good advice. The free market helps to sort out those effective alternatives, encouraging us to drill for oil responsibly at home, and protecting us from costly utopian schemes that drive up energy prices. The market is also our best hope for developing renewable energy technologies that are economically feasible.

Blog author: lglinzak
posted by on Monday, May 2, 2011

The blame game in Washington is heating up on skyrocketing gas prices. Republicans are criticized as being in the back pocket of the oil industry and partaking in crony capitalism. The Democrat Congressional Campaign Committee is even cashing in by hosting a fundraiser that is based on what has been the House Republicans “decade long relationship of protecting Big Oil taxpayer giveaways, speculations and price gouging…” However blame is also placed on Democrats, with accusations of placing barriers to prohibit domestic drilling. The debate has also centered around how we can be better environmental stewards. We may find ourselves asking questions such as whether green energy promotes environmental stewardship, and if oil drilling results in a dramatic harm to the environment?

An article published by the Washington Examiner contains disturbing numbers that will not be received very positively. Oil production in the Gulf was lower than predicated by the Energy Information Administration (EIA); however, imports were up:

While oil production in the Gulf is down more than 10% from April 2010 estimates, net crude oil imports are up 5%. At $83 dollars a barrel (the approximate average price of oil in the fourth quarter of 2010) that means Obama’s oil drilling permatorium increased American dependence on foreign oil by about $1.8 billion dollars in the fourth quarter of last year alone. The numbers only get worse as Obama’s permitorium further cuts into production. A Wood Mackenzie study predicts that for all of 2011 the permitorium will result in the loss this year of about 375,000 barrels of oil a day.

More imported oil also means higher prices at the pumps. The EIA explains: “Retail gasoline prices tend to be higher the farther it is sold from the source of supply.” It costs more money to transport oil to your gas station from the Persian Gulf than from the Gulf of Mexico.

On April 26th, President Obama wrote a letter to Congress calling for “immediate action to eliminate unwarranted tax breaks for the oil and gas industry, and to use those dollars to invest in clean energy to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.” The tax breaks President Obama is asking to be removed are worth $4 billion per year. This isn’t the president’s first call to action. His 2012 budget proposal also calls for the removal of the “subsidies.” But some have pointed out that the oil industry does not receive direct subsidy payments in the way that some farmers do. The president’s proposal specifically states:

Eliminates Inefficient Fossil Fuel Sub­sidies. Consistent with the Administration’s Government-wide effort to identify areas for sav­ings, the Budget eliminates inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that impede investment in clean energy sources and undermine efforts to address the threat of climate change. Approximately $4 bil­lion per year in tax subsidies to oil, gas, and other fossil fuel producers are proposed for repeal.

Here at the Acton Institute we have spoken in opposition to true subsidies, such as subsidized farming (articles can be found here, here, and here) and health care policy (a related article can be found here). In the past we have articulate the problems with subsidization. The language in President Obama’s budget proposal appears to be vague and does not specify where the oil industry will no longer be, in his words, subsidized. Is it in drilling? Does it affect gas prices? Ray Nothstine notes in his commentary, “High Gas Prices are Devastating to Poor” our moral obligation to the vulnerable and how the high gas prices are affecting them. With gas prices continuing to climb precautions should be taken to prevent even higher prices.

Brian Johnson, the American Petroleum Institute’s senior tax policy advisor, provides insight on the proposal in the president’s 2012 budget. Johnson explains that the president is proposing to remove the intangible drilling cost provision, which is the oil industry’s ability to deduct drilling “costs associated with labor, architecture, design and engineering; basically the building of an oil rig, a platform or any structure that allows the industry to get into the ground and find oil or natural gas.” Johnson claims this process helps in planning for the next stage of development and construction. Furthermore, Johnson claims the oil industry is already paying its fair share in taxes with an income tax rate at 48 percent. Whereas other S&P Industrials average a 24 percent effective tax rate. Stephen Comstock, also from API, responded to President Obama’s State of the Union Address in January, articulating problems with the president’s call to end subsidies for the oil industry.

While the call to end the oil subsidies is being criticized by some, others are supporting such an action. Bill Becker, a Senior Associate with Third Generation Environmentalism and an energy and climate specialist at Natural Capitalism Solutions, argues the subsidies place the United States at a competitive disadvantage to China and India in the competition to champion alternative energy:

If we are looking for ways to chip away at the budget deficit, to keep America competitive and to use market-based mechanisms to build a competitive clean energy economy, then subsidy reform should be near the top of the list.

Think of it this way: Imagine an Olympic marathon in which the U.S. team has to run on a steep and continuous uphill slope, while the teams from China and India run on a level track. That’s what “winning the future” will be like for the United States if we keep our perverse energy policies.  Direct and indirect taxpayer support for fossil energy, which far exceeds government support for emerging green energy technologies, almost certainly makes winning the future a futile race.

Becker also cites a report by the Government Accountability Office that claims “taxpayers are losing tens of billions of dollars in royalty payments in part because the Department of Interior doesn’t have sufficient capacity to monitor oil and gas production on public lands.”

In his letter address to Congress, the president calls to reinvest the $4 billion per year that the oil companies receive in subsidies into clean energy. The problem with current alternative energies is they are inefficient, not cost effective, and cause many unintended consequences (related articles on the inefficiency and unintended consequences of various alternative energies can be found here, here, here, and here).

Yes, we will need to develop good alternatives to oil over the long haul, but spending money on energy sources that are not effective is not a wise investment or a sign of being good financial stewards. If the tax provision and subsidies for the oil companies are to be cut, and taking into account the budget crisis the United States is currently facing, it may better serve the country to not reinvest the money and cut it out of the budget completely.