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So Much for 'Energy Independence'

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So Much for 'Energy Independence'

The Wall Street Journal July 7, 2009
Energy & EnvironmentOther

Whenever you read about ethanol, remember these numbers: 98 and 190.

They offer an essential insight into U.S. energy politics and the debate over cap-and-trade legislation that recently passed the House. Here is what the numbers mean: The U.S. gets about 98 times as much energy from natural gas and oil as it does from ethanol and biofuels. And measured on a per-unit-of-energy basis, Congress lavishes ethanol and biofuels with subsidies that are 190 times as large as those given to oil and gas.

Those numbers come from an April 2008 report by the Energy Information Administration: “Federal Financial Interventions and Subsidies in Energy Markets 2007.” Table ES6 lists domestic energy sources that get subsidies. In 2007, the U.S. consumed nearly 55.8 quadrillion British Thermal Units (BTUs), or about 9.6 billion barrels of oil equivalent, in natural gas and oil. That’s about 98 times as much energy as the U.S. consumed in ethanol and biofuels, which totaled 98 million barrels of oil equivalent.

Meanwhile, ethanol and biofuels are getting subsidies of $5.72 per million BTU. That’s 190 times as much as natural gas and petroleum liquids, which get subsidies of $0.03 per million BTU.

The report also shows that the ethanol and biofuels industry are more heavily subsidized -- in total dollar terms -- than the oil and gas industry. In 2007, the ethanol and biofuels industries got $3.25 billion in subsidies. The oil and gas industry got $1.92 billion.

Despite these subsidies, the ethanol lobby is queuing up for more favors. And they are doing so at the very same time that the Obama administration and Congress are pushing to eliminate the relatively modest subsidies for domestic oil and gas producers. Democrats want to cut drilling subsidies while simultaneously trumpeting their desire for “energy independence.”

The cap-and-trade bill passed by the House aims to “create energy jobs” and “achieve energy independence.” Meanwhile, Democrats are calling to eliminate drilling subsidies that have encouraged advances in technology that have opened up vast new U.S. energy sources. These advances have made it profitable to extract natural gas from the Barnett Shale deposit in Texas and the Marcellus in Pennsylvania -- deposits once thought too expensive to tap.

President Barack Obama’s 2010 budget calls for the elimination of two tax breaks: the expensing of “intangible drilling costs” (such as wages, fuel and pipe), which allows energy companies to deduct the bulk of their expenses for drilling new wells; and the allowance for percentage depletion, which allows well owners to deduct a portion of the value of the production from their wells. Those breaks provide the bulk of the $1.92 billion in oil and gas subsidies.

In May, Mr. Obama called the tax breaks for the oil and gas industry “unjustifiable loopholes” that do “little to incentivize production or reduce energy prices.”

That’s flat not true. The deduction for intangible drilling costs encourages energy companies to plow huge amounts of capital into more drilling. And that drilling has resulted in unprecedented increases in natural gas production and potential.

An April Department of Energy report estimated that the newly available shale resources total 649 trillion cubic feet of gas. That’s the energy equivalent of 118.3 billion barrels of oil, or slightly more than the proven oil reserves of Iraq.

Eliminating the tax breaks for drilling will make natural gas more expensive. Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co., a Houston-based investment-banking firm, estimates that eliminating the intangible drilling cost provision could increase U.S. natural gas prices by 50 cents per thousand cubic feet. Why? Because without the tax break, fewer wells will be drilled and less gas will be produced. The U.S. consumes about 23 trillion cubic feet of gas per year. Simple arithmetic shows that eliminating the drilling subsidies that cost taxpayers less than $2 billion per year could result in an increased cost to consumers of $11.5 billion per year in the form of higher natural gas prices.

Amid all this, Growth Energy, an ethanol industry front-group, is pushing the Environmental Protection Agency to adopt a proposal that would increase the amount of ethanol blended into gasoline from the current maximum of 10% to as much as 15%.

That increase would be a gift to corn ethanol producers who have never been able to make a go of it despite decades of federal subsidies and mandates. Growth Energy is also pushing the change even though only about seven million of the 250 million motor vehicles now on U.S. roads are designed to run on fuel containing more than 10% ethanol.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that gasoline with 10% ethanol is already doing real harm. In January, Toyota announced that it was recalling 214,570 Lexus vehicles. The reason: The company found that “ethanol fuels with a low moisture content will corrode the internal surface of the fuel rails.” (The rails carry fuel to the engine injectors.) Furthermore, there have been numerous media reports that ethanol-blended gasoline is fouling engines in lawn mowers, weed whackers and boats.

Lawyers in Florida have already sued a group of oil companies for damage allegedly done to boat fuel tanks and engines from ethanol fuel. They are claiming that consumers should be warned about the risk of using the fuel in their boats.

There is also corn ethanol’s effect on food prices. Over the past two years at least a dozen studies have linked subsidies that have increased the production of corn ethanol with higher food prices.

Mr. Obama has been pro-ethanol and anti-oil for years. But he and his allies on Capitol Hill should understand that removing drilling incentives will mean less drilling, which will mean less domestic production and more imports of both oil and natural gas.

That’s hardly a recipe for “energy independence.”

This piece originally appeared in Wall Street Journal