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As I have noted on more than one occasion, in recent years the United States EPA has been acting more and more like a revenue-generating arm of the government than an agency that’s actually interested in protecting human health and the environment. A recent story published in the New York Times amply illustrates the point: fuel suppliers are being fined for failing to add a “green fuel” – cellulosic ethanol – that doesn’t actually exist into their gasoline blends.
Cellulosic ethanol has long been a particularly prized panacea among environmental groups. As any moonshiner knows, conventional ethanol has long been produced by fermenting naturally grown sugars. These sugars are readily available and relatively easy to get at in corn for example, which is why ethanol production plants commonly use corn as their feedstock. However, even Al Gore eventually realized that it was rather idiotic to take millions of acres of farmland out of food and feed production in order to “grow” a fuel that (in many gases) actually ends up on the deficit side of the energy ledger. Cellulosic ethanol theoretically addresses those concerns.
There are sugars theoretically available in cellulose, a naturally-occurring polymer found in all sorts of plant life. If you can figure out how to get at those sugars, then you can make ethanol out of things that don’t have a lot of intrinsic value and that don’t compete with food and feed crops, like tree trimmings and corn cobs. Unfortunately, getting at those particular sugars is (for a lot of reasons that would bore the heck out of the average reader) extremely difficult. Like the Chevy Volt, the concept of cellulosic ethanol is very attractive, but the reality is expensive and impractical.
Expense and practicality are hardly matters of concern to environmentalists though. Environmentalists prefer the pixie dust approach to dealing with energy policy: if they believe hard enough, their wishes will come true. They wanted cellulosic ethanol and once Democrats took control of Congress after the 2006 elections, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid duly granted their wish. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 mandated the use of certain minimum quantities of cellulosic ethanol that started at 100 million gallons in 2009 and ends at 16 billion gallons is 2022. (Annual US gasoline sales are about 130 billion gallons, by way of comparison). In 2011, oil companies were mandated to sell at least 250 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol.
This was a problem for oil companies, because there are no plants currently producing cellulosic ethanol. And so, using her authority under the Clean Air Act, USEPA Administrator Lisa Jackson duly issued penalty demands of $6.8 million to oil companies for not using a non-existent fuel. If the rallying cry in 1776 was “No Taxation Without Representation!”, perhaps the equivalent in 2011 ought to be “No Penalty Without Reality!”
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