The Bush administration has become adept at dangling technological panaceas in front of us, promising a solution is around the corner that will end our energy woes (earlier). The latest in the litany is ethanol–the promise that converting biomass (corn, switchgrass, sugarcane) into ethanol would displace some percentage of gasoline consumption, thus reducing our “oil addiction.” Unfortunately, we may be as addicted to corporate lobbying and government subsidies as we are to oil, dooming any effort to effectively promote ethanol.
The recent spikes in gas pricing have been attributed to a government mandate for increased ethanol additives–something that everyone saw coming and nobody managed to plan for. And now ethanol shortages have driven up prices everywhere. Underneath the surface, however, we find that the shortage in ethanol comes in large part from steep tariffs on ethanol imports:
The U.S. currently levies a tariff of 2.5%, as well as a second duty of 54-cents-a-gallon, on all ethanol. That equals a giant tax that must be factored into already sky-high gas prices, and helps explain why the import market remains tiny. (WSJ, A Good Gas Idea)
Emerging technologies will never overpower the established interests strictly on technical merits. As the WSJ editorial continues, “[domestic] ethanol makers receive more government subsidies and are responsible for far more of the current gasoline price spike.” When it comes to complex systems, and energy is as complex as they get, new solutions (or even underused old ones) will have to find ways to ally with established interests or they will remain, as Bush said, just around the corner. Good for politicians, bad for progress.