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EPA biofuel rule: why it needs reform

We are in a far better position now to consider scaling back our use of ethanol produced from grain biofuel than we were when the EPA biofuel rule was established, Styles writes. With shale gas, tight oil and various renewables, the energy scarcity that has defined our policies for the last four decades is far less relevant to our policy choices going forward.

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Before speaking with Dr. Bar-Yam last week, I was a bit skeptical of his results. Aside from skepticism being my default mode in such situations, I had spent a lot of time looking at claims of speculator influence on crude oil prices in the 2006-8 period and was never convinced that they were more than the “foam on the beer”, rather than a basic driver of prices. However, as I was reviewing his paper prior to our call, a light went on.

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Rising Corn Demand Spurs Increased Speculator Activity

The curve his model predicted, which closely matched food price behavior, looked very much like the behavior of a process control loop responding to a ramped change in the set point–forget the jargon and think about how the temperature of your home responds to a steady increase in your thermostat setting: overshooting, then undershooting, before converging. We discussed this analogy and he confirmed that the effect could be characterized the same way whether it related to an electrical circuit or a market. In effect, the steadily increasing corn demand from the ratcheting up of the RFS started corn prices rising, and the presence of lots of speculators, including “index fund” investors, caused the price to successively overshoot and undershoot the equilibrium price track one would expect.

Dr. Bar-Yam explained that he had arrived at these two factors by eliminating factors that other groups had investigated, but that turned out to have no predictive value. These included shifting exchange rates, drought in Australia, a dietary shift in Asia from grains to meat, and linkages between oil and food prices. In his view the focus on ethanol and speculation is validated by the shift in dialog on this issue away from other, extraneous causes.

He also emphasized that his main concern is not the price of processed foods in developed countries such as the US, for which commodity grain costs are only one input, but rather the price paid for simple foods by poor people in the developing world. From that standpoint he doesn’t just want to see the RFS reformed. ”It is important not just to repeal, but to roll back the amount of ethanol used in the US.” He would prefer not 10% ethanol in gasoline, let alone 15%, but about 5%. “The narrative has to shift,” he said, “to recognize that people are going hungry.” Those are powerful words, and I’m still thinking about them.

Conclusion: Timing is Right for RFS Reassessment

At current production levels ethanol from corn contributes the energy equivalent of 6% of US gasoline consumption and about 2.5% of total US liquid fuel demand. That’s not trivial, and there’s a whole domestic industry of investors, employees and suppliers who made that happen at our collective request.

However, If Dr. Bar-Yam has accurately captured the relationship between ethanol and global food prices, then we urgently need to reassess what we’re doing with this fuel. We are also in a far better position now to consider scaling back our use of ethanol produced from grain than we were when the RFS was established. With increasing production of shale gas, tight oil and various renewables, the energy scarcity that has defined our policies for the last four decades is far less relevant to our policy choices going forward. I’ll tackle the practical aspects of RFS reform, in terms of the so-called “blend wall” and its impact on gasoline prices, in a future post.

Source: Why the Timing is Ripe for Ethanol Policy Reform

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