Loss of Ethanol Subsidy Boosts Gasoline Prices a Little, E85 Prices a Lot

Michael Giberson

The basic math is pretty simple: most gasoline in the U.S. has about 10 percent ethanol, so the the 45 cents/gallon VEETC subsidy reduced the price of gasoline about 4.5 cents. The subsidy expired at the end of 2011, so one reason gasoline prices have gone up a few cents since New Year’s Day comes from the loss of the subsidy. (World crude oil prices are up a bit, too.)

Normally, a subsidy would be shared by producers and consumers, so the loss of a subsidy would be shared. But the Renewable Fuels Standard quantity mandate protects producers from taking a hit. The main effect here is that the consumers’ mandated purchases of ethanol will no longer be subsidized by taxpayers, and therefore the price rises.

But lest you gasoline consumers feel too bad, consider the plight of the drivers relying on E85, a blend of 85 percent ethanol and only 15 percent gasoline. The math here is simple, too: 85 percent of 45 cents meant that E85 was receiving about a 38 cents/gallon subsidy, and now that subsidy is gone.

The Minneapolis, MN Star Tribune reports, “The Road for E85 Just got Rougher“:

The high-ethanol fuel known as E85 has gained a small foothold in Minnesota in recent years, thanks in part to a subsidized price advantage and the presence of major producers and blenders in the state.

Now, the federal tax credit that boosted the industry is gone, raising questions about the fuel’s future.

Without the 38-cent-per-gallon subsidy that went away Jan. 1, E85 prices are moving up. It’s still cheaper than gasoline, but the shrinking difference may not be enough to compensate drivers who get fewer miles per gallon because of the fuel’s lower energy content.

[Recall that ethanol has a lower energy density than gasoline, so drivers get fewer miles per gallon with E85.]

The post-subsidy era also brings tough choices for owners of flexible-fuel vehicles, including the state of Minnesota, which has more than 3,000 vehicles capable of burning E85, and in 2010 used 963,000 gallons of it.

They must decide whether to support a fuel that is 85 percent home-grown ethanol even it it’s no longer competitively priced. Minnesota is the nation’s fourth-largest ethanol producer, and leads the nation with 364 retailers selling E85.


Last week in the Twin Cities, E85 was 16 cents to 40 cents lower than regular gasoline, which also rose in price. That’s as little as a 5 percent price difference. E85’s price advantage has sometimes been more than four times better and averaged 17 percent last year, according to the state Commerce Department.

At Lerum Auto, the only E85 dealer in Richfield, owner Dean Lerum had another 1,000 gallons of E85 delivered on Wednesday — at the new, unsubsidized price.

“I am going to let the market decide,” said Lerum, for whom E85 once represented 25 percent of fuel sales, but now accounts for 5 to 7 percent. “If it drops a whole lot more, I will get rid of it.”

Two more related stories from around the web

Kevin Drum at Mother Jones makes the call: “Ethanol Subsidies: Not Gone, Just Hidden a Little Better

As the Congressional Budget Office wrote back in 2010, “In the future, the scheduled increase in mandated volumes would require biofuels to be produced in amounts that are probably beyond what the market would produce even if the effects of the tax credits were included.” [Italics mine. -KD] In other words, the mandates have grown so large that the tax credits barely made a difference anymore. Demand for ethanol is driven by the mandates, not by the tax credit. When you take away the tax credit, nothing happens: Demand stays high because the law says so, corn prices go up accordingly, and corn farmers stay rich. The subsidies were a nice little fillip on top of that, but at this point it’s basically chump change.

The RFS mandates are the real reason that buffoons can ramble on about the history-making public policy magnanimity of the ethanol lobby. Drum cites Aaron Smith, of UC-Davis, writing in the American Enterprise Institute’s American.com: “Children of the Corn: The Renewable Fuels Disaster

[W]hy did the powerful corn ethanol lobby let [the subsidy] expire without an apparent fight? The answer lies in legislation known as the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which creates government-guaranteed demand that keeps corn prices high and generates massive farm profits. Removing the tax credit but keeping the RFS is like scraping a little frosting from the ethanol-boondoggle cake.

And Smith is just getting started, so if want more reasons to hate ethanol policy then read the whole thing.

ADDED, Here is a more complete analysis of the relationship between the Renewable Fuels Standard mandates and the (now expired) tax credit, and also see the list of readings at the end of the commentary: de Gorter and Just, “The Forgotten Flaw in Biofuels Policy: How Tax Credits in the Presence of Mandates Subsidize Oil Consumption,” RFF Weekly Policy Commentary (June 9, 2008).

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