Are biofuel mandates and tax credits such a good idea? It may be wise to learn from the EU’s experience…
After passage of the new Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) late last year (see earlier post), which mandates production of 15 billion gallons of corn-grain ethanol by by 2015, many of us are left contemplating the vast implications for US industry, not to mention commodity prices, auto manufacturing, and the greater course of biofuel research and development.
Rewind to 2003, when the European Union (EU) passed a biofuel directive requiring 5.75% of transport energy to come from biofuels by 2010, increasing to 20% by 2020. When paired with tax credits for biodiesel production, business boomed, at least for a while:
Mirroring the U.S. experience with ethanol, European companies rushed to make biodiesel out of a range of things, including rapeseed crops and used McDonald’s frying oil. Low raw-material costs and generous tax breaks meant margins were high. By last year, Europe’s annual capacity to make the fuel had climbed to 10 million metric tons from two million tons in 2003.
As with ethanol in the U.S., though, Europe now has a glut of biodiesel. The world consumed only nine million tons of biodiesel last year. Europe’s producers found buyers for just five million tons. The industry is in trouble, under pressure from soaring costs, disappearing tax breaks, less-costly imports and waning public support.