Following the money government spends isn't easy in Hawaii, according to a new report - Photo: Emily Metcalf

Photo: Emily Metcalf

BY LOWELL KALAPA – Did you enjoy that slice of bacon with your scrambled eggs and toast this morning along with that cup of coffee?

Hopefully you “enjoyed” it without knowing how much it cost to put that slice of bacon on your plate.  For those who do the shopping for their households, they know that slice has gotten increasingly expensive in the past few years rising from $3 a pound to more than $7 a pound in recent weeks when it is not on sale.  And even if it is on sale, it probably is about $3, but only for 12 ounces.  Consumers have seen other meat and poultry products that depend on corn feedstock rise dramatically in recent years.

Bacon is merely a reflection of good political intentions gone bad as elected officials rushed to embrace eco-friendly strategies.  In this case, the mantra focused on reducing dependence on fossil fuels by blending ethanol with gasoline to produce what was know as “gasohol” for use in the nation’s automobiles.  The search for gasoline alternatives had its impetus in the 1974 oil crisis and ever since then, the pursuit has taken on a fevered pitch to the point where Congress enacted a tax credit to encourage fuel production from ethanol.

At the time of the adoption of the credit, corn was the most likely candidate to be used as the base for producing ethanol followed by sugar, but because the production of corn created a plentiful supply at the time federal lawmakers were encouraged to provide a tax credit of 45 cents for each gallon of ethanol that was blended with gasoline.  In the ensuing years, though, the public has learned that ethanol is not the most fuel efficient source of alternate energy and that, in fact, it takes more energy to grow the corn that is used to make ethanol than the energy that the burning of ethanol produces.

Here in Hawaii, eco-conscientious lawmakers jumped on the bandwagon early on and exempted the sales of ethanol blended fuels from the state’s 4% general excise tax as a way to encourage the use of “gasohol.”  While that provision kept on getting renewed over a period of 15 years, no one took advantage of it largely because the cost of that blended fuel was still more expensive than plain, old gasoline.

It was not until the former governor signed a mandate that all fuel henceforth was to be blended with at least 10% alcohol did the use of “gasohol” become widespread.  That mandate came perhaps in an effort to encourage investors to build an ethanol plant that would use sugarcane as the source for the alcohol production.  Lawmakers had also embraced the idea of alcohol-blended fuels a few years earlier by establishing a tax credit to encourage the growing of sugar cane as the feedstock for an ethanol producing plant.  But as a result of bureaucratic red tape, the plant never got built, providing an opportunity to reevaluate the use of ethanol.

And perhaps it was a good thing that such an ethanol producing plant never came into fruition during all of these years that the tax credit was available, for in the meantime, as research has shown, making ethanol from corn or sugar cane is not that energy efficient, taking more energy to make the stuff than it produces.  As a result, lawmakers in the past couple of sessions have tried to reshape the tax credit for ethanol producing facilities into a tax credit for “biofuel” production as the jury is still out as to what is the most efficient and productive plant source from which to produce alternate energy.

The bottom line is that using public resources, such as tax incentives and tax credits, to supposedly influence human behavior and encourage certain types of activity is inefficient and wasteful.  Adopting the federal tax credit for ethanol not only provided a windfall for corn farmers, but it created an artificial demand for corn feedstock and instead of shifting consumption to a more energy-efficient alternative, the tax incentive drove up the cost of corn feedstock as the tax credit created artificial demand which, in turn, increased the price of corn that is used to feed livestock.  The result of the latter is the higher costs at the supermarket for meat and poultry products.

Here in Hawaii the tax incentives and the executive order to blend all fuel merely increased the cost for the highway user and shifted the export of consumer dollars from the oil fields of the Middle East and Indonesia to the sugar fields of Brazil.  And because of the lost tax revenues, taxpayers had to forego tax relief.

By the way, hope the bacon was crisp!

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6 COMMENTS

  1. As a representative for ethanol supporters across the country, I would like to point out that a recently released study from the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development at Iowa State University demonstrated that US ethanol subsidies has little impact on consumer prices and very modest impacts on crop prices. This study proved that ethanol tax incentives did not promote “artificial demand.”
    Additionally, ethanol is more energy efficient to produce than gasoline refined from oil. A recent USDA study showed that for every 1 BTU requires for ethanol production, 2.3 BTUs of energy are produced.
    Finally, the US ethanol industry has been attempting for over a year now to forgo the so-called “blender’s credit” tax incentive, in favor of ethanol infrastructure investment. We no longer face a problem of production, we face an issue of market access. The plan from Sens. Thune, Klobuchar and Feinstein would end the ethanol tax incentive, putting two-thirds of that funding toward deficit reduction, and the rest toward infrastructure, like Flex Fuel pumps. Only when that infrastructure is in place and Big Oil no longer controls the fuels market will American consumers truly have choice at the pump.

  2. I agree that tax credits must be kept to a minimum. However, the moniker on this page says “INDEPENDENT • NEWS • OPINION” and I have to say that the cause of independence is better served by some ethanol tax credits than without any. Hawaii, like so much of the mainland, is totally dependent on fossil fuels that are imported. The only opportunity for it to become liquid fuel independent is if there is a technology and a market for biofuels. Biofuels can be made from sugar and starches in cultivated crops and the technology is growing for conversion of ag wastes, green wastes, municipal solid wastes and food wastes to produce advanced biofuels. These indigenous technologies are paying huge dividends to community independence and economic security with or without tax credits.

    There is a transition that requires leadership and incentive policies because these emerging technologies will never develop under the status quo. Until we detach ourselves from our “addiction to oil” we will never see the economy as anything other than a slave to the changes of oil prices and global demand. We need to secure our future by having non-fossil alternatives at the pump.

    If you can effect the necessary transition without tax credits – do it. The transition is critical for the independence of future generations.

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