Few things prompt Washington policymakers to forget their professed belief in the efficiency of free markets faster than $100-a-barrel oil prices–or even the threat of them. In one of the most notable recent examples, as the price of crude oil edged toward the $100 mark late last year, the U.S. Congress passed, and President Bush quickly signed, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.
Among its various provisions, the energy bill prescribes a minimum amount of biofuel that gasoline suppliers must use in their products each year through 2022. The new mandates, which significantly expand the Renewable Fuels Standard of 2005, would more than double the 2007 market for corn-derived ethanol, to 15 billion gallons, by 2015. At the same time, the bill ensures the creation of a new market for cellulosic biofuels made from such sources as prairie grass, wood chips, and agricultural waste. The standards call for the production of 500 million gallons of cellulosic biofuel by 2012, one billion gallons by 2013, and 16 billion gallons by 2022.
Not surprisingly, the ethanol industry is very happy. The Biotechnology Industry Organization, a Washington-based trade association whose members include both large manufacturers and startup companies developing new cellulosic technologies, suggests that “this moment in the history of transportation fuels development can be compared to the transition from whale oil to kerosene to light American homes in the 1850s.” The new push for biofuels, the trade association continues, is “larger than the Apollo project or the Manhattan project” and will require the construction of 300 biofuel plants, each with a capacity of 100 million gallons, at a cost of up to $100 billion.
In short, the federal government has legislated the growth of a sizable industry. The often stated aim of the biofuel standards is to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and dependence on foreign oil. And biofuels, particularly cellulosic ones, could arguably play a significant role in achieving both those goals (see “The Price of Biofuels,” January/February 2008). But quite apart from the value of ethanol and other biofuels, the creation of markets by federal law raises fundamental questions about the best way to implement a national energy policy. Can legislated markets survive economic conditions and policy priorities that change over the long term? And what role should the government play in promoting specific technologies?
Mandated consumption levels break the “one-to-one link” between market demand and the adoption of a technology, says Harry de Gorter, an associate professor of applied economics and management at Cornell University: “As an economist, I don’t like it. Economists like to let the markets determine what [technology] has the best chances.” The new biofuel mandates are “betting on a particular technology,” he says. “It is almost impossible to predict the best technology. It is almost inevitable that [mandates] will generate inefficiencies.” While de Gorter acknowledges that some economists might justify mandated markets as a way to promote a desired social policy, he questions the strategy’s effectiveness. “Historically, there are no good examples of it working in alternative energy,” he says.
One reason economists tend to be wary of mandated consumption levels is that they can have unintended consequences for related markets. Producing 15 billion gallons of conventional ethanol will require farmers to grow far more corn than they now do. And even with the increased harvest, biofuel production will consume around 45 percent of the U.S. corn crop, compared with 22 percent in 2007. The effects on the agricultural sector will be various and complex.