In 2006, President G.W. Bush rolled out a new energy program in his State of the Union Address. It was not one of his better moments. In only a few years, the United States would start fueling its vehicles with the equivalent of rainbows and unicorn sweat, er, cellulosic ethanol:
We must also change how we power our automobiles. We will increase our research in better batteries for hybrid and electric cars, and in pollution-free cars that run on hydrogen.
We will also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn but from wood chips, stalks, or switch grass. Our goal is to make this new kind of ethanol practical and competitive within six years.
This wishful thinking was codified by Congress in the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, which expanded a renewable fuel standard and included ethanol made from cellulose (aka, woody plant matter):
H.R. 6 would expand the renewable fuels standard to 9 billion gallons in 2008, and progressively increase it to a 36 billion gallon requirement by 2022. Additionally, H.R. 6 makes a historic commitment to develop cellulosic ethanol by requiring that by 2022 the United States produce 21 billion gallons of advanced biofuels, such as cellulosic ethanol.
Alas, presidential and congressional pronouncements to the contrary, the technology did not exist in 2006, nor does it exist today, to make cellulosic ethanol in any significant quantity, at anything resembling a competitive price, as the New York Times reports:
When the companies that supply motor fuel close the books on 2011, they will pay about $6.8 million in penalties to the Treasury because they failed to mix a special type of biofuel into their gasoline and diesel as required by law.
But there was none to be had. Outside a handful of laboratories and workshops, the ingredient, cellulosic biofuel, does not exist.
In 2012, the oil companies expect to pay even higher penalties for failing to blend in the fuel, which is made from wood chips or the inedible parts of plants like corncobs. Refiners were required to blend 6.6 million gallons into gasoline and diesel in 2011 and face a quota of 8.65 million gallons this year.
“It belies logic,” Charles T. Drevna, the president of theNational Petrochemicals and Refiners Association, said of the 2011 quota. And raising the quota for 2012 when there is no production makes even less sense, he said.
And what is the response of our current government to this silliness?
But Cathy Milbourn, an E.P.A. spokeswoman, said that her agency still believed that the 8.65-million-gallon quota for cellulosic ethanol for 2012 was “reasonably attainable.” By setting a quota, she added, “we avoid a situation where real cellulosic biofuel production exceeds the mandated volume,” which would weaken demand.
Right. So what’s most important about biofuel quotas is that they prevent us from over-producing a product that we can’t produce so we don’t weaken demand for the product that the government mandates we use. That’s logical.