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Mommy, Are We Beyond Petroleum Yet?

No, Sylvester, not even close! As noted in a previous post, on Earth Day (April 22), a Navy F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet became the first aircraft to "demonstrate the performance of a 50-50 blend of camelina-based biojet fuel and traditional petroleum-based jet fuel at supersonic speeds.”  Camelina is a non-edible plant in the mustard family.

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Navy Secy. Ray Mabus crowed that the biofueled fighter demonstrates "the Navy’s commitment to reducing dependence on foreign oil as well as safeguarding our environment" and to being "an early adopter of alternative energy sources.”

Secy. Mabus neglected to mention that camelina-based fuel costs $65 a gallon (ClimateWire, 6/28/10, subscription required) -- about 30 times more than commercial jet fuel. Only an organization funded with your tax dollars could afford to ignore so much pain at the pump.

Plain and simple economics -- not the alleged machinations of Big Oil or Congress's unwillingness to put a price on carbon -- explains why America remains dependent on petroleum.

More evidence (as if any were needed) that politicians cannot mandate and subsidize us into a beyond petroleum future comes from an unlikely source -- EPA.

SugarcaneBlog.Com reported yesterday:

Once again, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has had to rollback the ambitious nationwide mandate for cellulosic biofuels that Congress created in the 2007 energy bill. EPA announced today proposed regulations to implement the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS2) for 2011 but said the goal of 250 million gallons of cellulosic biofuels cannot be met. EPA is proposing to set the standard in the range of 5 to 17 million gallons

This means that next year, somewhere between 0.004% and 0.015% of our motor fuel will come from cellulosic ethanol. I feel more energy independent already, don't you?

By way of background, in the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA), Congress mandated that importers, blenders, and refiners sell 36 billion gallons of renewable motor fuel by 2022, with 16 billion gallons classified as cellulosic. As you may recall, President G.W. Bush touted ethanol made from plant cellulose such as switchgrass in his 2006 state of the union address.

Five to 17 million gallons is a very long way from 16 billion gallons.  Of course, some miracle may happen between now and 2022. But as for 2011, EPA is in wholesale retreat on cellulosic ethanol. If refiners actually sell 17 million gallons of cellulosic in 2011, the RFS program will fall short of EISA's 250 million gallon target by 94%. If refiners sell only 5 million gallons, the program will fall short by 98%.

EPA says it "remains optimistic" about the commercial potential of cellulosic ethanol. Well, did you expect EPA to badmouth a mandate that expands its control over the  transport sector?

Bloomberg Businessweek explains more clearly than EPA does why the agency had to back-peddle so furiously: "The Environmental Protection Agency proposed requiring less cellulosic ethanol to be blended into gasoline next year than sought under U.S. law because production of the alternative fuel hasn't reached commercial scale."

The lesson should be obvious. It was well and memorably expressed by three MIT scholars in their retrospective on the Carter era energy programs:

The experience of the 1970s and 1980s taught us that if a technology is commercially viable, then government support is not needed and if a technology is not commercially viable, no amount of government support can make it so.