And boy, are there a lot of fools.
Mac Margolis at BloombergView has a good analysis of Brazil’s ethanol industry, which details how “clever sugar and ethanol makers” have been hamstrung by the country’s bureaucracy.
Some 60 ethanol plants have shuttered this year alone and “blue slips,” Brazil’s unemployment notices, are multiplying: Nearly half of the more than 36,000 industrial jobs erased last month were in the sugar and alcohol industry, reports Valor Economico.
What’s worse, they are victims of the wonks and activist bureaucrats whose good intentions to goose growth and contain inflation have only compounded their troubles. The road to ruin was paved by the government of President Dilma Rousseff, a micro-manager who converted state-run companies into the useful idiots of misguided economics.
The piece notes that ethanol took a back seat to oil after the discovery of a huge cache of oil was found under four miles of sea, sediment and salt in 2007.
To restore the balance, and guard against the volatility of oil prices, Brazil might increase the proportion of ethanol blended into gasoline, as well as increase a gasoline tax.
That won’t make Brazilians happy: They already pay one of every three reais they earn to government. But with pressure on emerging market nations to fight climate change by slashing greenhouse gas emissions, a levy on dirty fuels in favor of cleaner-burning ethanol might draw more sympathy.
Brazil’s state-controlled oil company, Petrobras, is embroiled in what might become one of the largest corruption scandals in the nation’s history.
This week The New York Times reported that prosecutor general Rodrigo Janot had prepared indictments on at least 11 executives from Brazil’s largest construction companies.
According to the story, Janot:
is opening the way for a trial that would focus scrutiny on growing testimony about a web of illicit dealings between former executives at Petrobras, the state-controlled oil company, powerful contractors and political figures in Ms. Rousseff’s government.
“We are following the money and we will reach all of these perpetrators,” Mr. Janot said Saturday night in an interview with the Globo television network.
The scandal, which involves claims of bribes to obtain contracts with Petrobras, stunned Brazil’s business establishment in November, when police arrested the executives and transferred them to a jail in the southern city of Curitiba. If testimony already obtained in the case is proven true, the case would dwarf previous corruption scandals in Brazil.
Evidence points to vast sums of money changing hands:
Pedro Barusco, once an obscure, third-tier executive at Petrobras, has agreed to return about $100 million in bribes related to his time at the company, a disclosure that could rank him among the largest known bribery recipients in Brazil’s history. Separately, Augusto Mendonça, an executive at Toyo Setal, a shipbuilding company, testified last week that he paid more than $23 million in bribes directly to the governing Workers Party and to Petrobras executives in exchange for contracts to build oil tankers.
The scandal already affecting the popularity of President Dilma Rousseff, who was narrowly re-elected in May. Rousseff is a former energy minister who once served as chairwoman of the board at Petrobras.
A new opinion survey released on Sunday by Datafolha, a prominent Brazilian polling company, showed that 68 percent of Brazilians hold Ms. Rousseff responsible for the bribery scandal. At the same time, Ms. Rousseff, who narrowly won re-election in October, has an approval rating of 42 percent, the survey showed.
In the early 1990s, California tried to force the introduction of electric cars by requiring that auto companies produce a zero-emissions vehicle in order to remain in the state. The result was Chevrolet’s EV1, which everyone agreed was the best electrical vehicle that could be built at the time. Owners loved them, but somehow the effort didn’t take off.
The infrastructure simply wasn’t in place. The car only had a 70-mile range and drivers spent much of their time worrying about their next charge. Many EV1s ended up on the lots of rental agencies where they attracted little attention. All this, of course, was interpreted by some people as the fault of the oil companies and the auto industry, which didn’t push the case hard enough. The award-winning documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” made this argument.
Then three years later, Toyota introduced the Prius, a gas-electric hybrid that gave drivers some breathing room. It was a spectacular success. By not trying to make the technological transition in one giant leap, the Prius introduced drivers to the advantages of electric propulsion without asking them to sacrifice anything in terms of a nerve-wracking search for a refill. In fact, when Toyota brought out the Prius it deliberately left off a home charger so that buyers would not associate it with the failed EV1. Not until several years later did the company release a plug-in hybrid. In both cases, the Prius has been the most successful of all hybrids.
Natural gas vehicles seem determined to avoid the same mistake. This year both Ford and General Motors are releasing commercial NGVs in their light-truck and sedan lines. But they are taking care to make them bi-fuel vehicles that run on both gasoline and natural gas, although they are expensive. (Both companies have been making tri-fuel — gasoline, ethanol and CNG — for many years in Brazil.) First out of the box will be the immensely popular Chevrolet Silverado and the GMC Sierra, both full-sized pickups that sold 480,000 and 184,000 last year, respectively, the highest sales mark since 2007. GM is offering bi-fuel versions for every cabin configuration. The 2015 model will offer a 16-gallon gasoline tank and a 17-gallon-equivalent compressed natural gas tank. When both are filled, the truck will have a remarkable range of 650 miles.
Along with that, GM will be releasing a bi-fuel Chevrolet Impala to introduce ordinary drivers to the advantages of natural gas. The Impala will feature an 18.5-gallon gasoline tank and a 7.7-GGE CNG tank. The result will be a 500-mile range.
Not to be outdone, Ford has already introduced a bi-fuel version of the immensely successful F-150 half-ton pickup truck. Released only last November, the company managed to sell 15,000 vehicles across eight models in 2013. That beat 2012 sales by 25 percent. When combined with its conventional gas tank, the CNG boost gives the F-150 an astounding 700-mile range, beating the Silverado by 100 miles. Unfortunately, the price differential for all these NGV models will be about $10,000.
But motorists could see a 2-3-year payback if the price gap between gasoline and its natural gas equivalent holds up. Right now it has settled around $1.50 gap per gallon and has remained there for almost five years. Give motorists the opportunity to save almost half the price on a gallon of gas is bound to make the new bi-fuel models more attractive.
Other developments are also moving in the direction of a transition to natural gas for high mileage vehicles. In 2012, ARPA-E, the federal government’s program for advanced energy research, awarded $2.3 million to GE Global Research, Chart Industries and the University of Missouri to design a gas refueling station for homeowners. GE already makes a $5,000 medium-sized refueling kit for commercial businesses called “CNG in a Box” that takes gas out of the utility pipes and compresses it for fleet vehicles. The target price for the scaled-down homeowner version is $500. The consortium has set a release date for later this year, at which point we’ll find out if they’ve been successful. The launching of such a cheap conversion system that would allow homeowners to tap the natural gas pipes in their house to refuel their cars would revolutionize the whole NGV effort.
Of course there’s always another possibility — converting our abundant natural gas supplies to ethanol or methanol that would fit right into our current gasoline delivery system. Switching to liquids would not require a new on-board gas tank but would simply involve adjusting existing engines so they could run on a variety of liquids — the “flex-fuel” system. Giving motorists the widest variety of choices would let them experiment with different strategies without having to make a giant leap over some technological chasm. That’s what California learned twenty years ago when it tried to rush the introduction of the electric car and the lesson still holds good today.
An annual report on Brazil’s biofuel sector has been filed with the USDA Foreign Agriculture Service’s Global Agricultural Information Network, predicting Brazilian ethanol production will increase 5 percent next year, reaching a total of 26.9 billion liters (7.11 billion gallons). Ethanol exports are expected to increase 200 million liters next year, reaching 1.8 billion liters.
You must remember the famous community activist who once asked, “To be, or not to be, that is the policy and behavior question; whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageously high, constantly shifting gasoline prices or to take arms against a sea of troubles generated by monopolistic fuel markets and open them up and end them.” I’m paraphrasing, of course.
Unfortunately, Shakespeare, now that we need him, is no longer available. But his question, articulated by his political friend Hamlet, still needs to be answered. I suggest we respond to his query in the context of another question: Is competition in the market for vehicular fuel a public good and in the public interest? Ah ha, you ask, why must we ask this question? Don’t we live in a capitalist or quasi-capitalist nation? Gosh, ever since we all were kids, were we not brought up on the wisdom of free markets and their ostensible link to freedom and democracy, a trifecta holy grail?
Sure we were! But the presented wisdom apparently didn’t mean all markets, and most important for this article, the market where most of us purchase fuel. By and large, the market for fuel is limited to a single, generally similar, primary product — gasoline. Competition, when it exists, generates from relatively small price differences, more often than not. Overblown value propositions in advertising concerning engine performance benefits from brand X or Y notwithstanding.
Consumers who, many times, assiduously read the papers or go online to find out where different brands of tires are cheapest or travel miles to visit dealers to get a perceived “good deal” on a car are frequently constrained to their neighborhood gas stations or the stations located near the nearest shopping center or big box store. While price may be a key factor in driving their decision as to which station will fill up their tank, absence of diverse fuel alternatives results in a relatively narrow band of prices per gallon and a competitive floor on consumer savings and costs.
Opening up gas markets will be tough. The oil industry controls or strongly influences over 40 percent of the stations and holds a big, profitable stick concerning what can be sold and how it can be sold at its franchised facilities. Prices are set low enough to scare independents into selecting less-than-favorable locations, or pricey enough to give them some room to keep their own costs relatively high.
To date, state pilot or demonstration programs concerning alternative fuels like ethanol and methanol have had mixed results. Why? Their costs of production and their environmental/GHG costs are lower than gasoline. Are we Americans just dumb? No. Initiatives to date have had to surmount problems including: consumer access to fuel stations with flex-fuel pumps (their costs range from $50,000 to over $100,000); a growing but still relatively small percentage of flex fuel autos compared to the total number of vehicles; the lack of consumer information concerning their own flex-fuel vehicle’s ability to use ethanol; the fear generated by some interest groups often related to the oil industry about the impact of alternative fuels on engines; the seeming ability of the oil industry to manage local prices; and the decisions by supply chain participants, particularly retailers to raise alternative fuel prices to capture immediate profits (reducing their intermediate and long-term ability — as the new kid on the block — to compete with gasoline.)
Evidence from Brazil suggests that demand emanating from an educated public, combined with a commitment to increase the pool of alternative-fuel vehicles and readily accessible fuel stations with ethanol pumps will cause a reduction in gasoline prices. Juliano J. Assunção, Joao Paulo Pessoa and Leonardo Rezende noted in a December 2013 London School of Economics publication, “Our estimates suggest that the model prediction is correct and that as the percentage of flex cars increase by 10%, ethanol and gasoline energy equivalent prices per liter fall by approximately 8 cents and 2 cents, respectively. Considering the volume of sales and size of the flex fuel fleet in 2007, a rough estimate suggests consumer savings to the order of 70 million Reais in the Rio de Janeiro state that year. Our estimates also show that the price gap as well as the price correlation between the two fuels has increased with the increased penetration of flex fuel cars.” Other studies have suggested similar positive impacts.
A U.S. recipe appears clear and consistent with America’s assumed belief in letting the market decide most resource allocation issues connected to the production of non-social welfare related goods and services. Ingredient one: Amend laws and regulations to encourage individual owners to convert older cars to flex-fuel automobiles; ingredient two: mix the resulting converted cars with newer flex-fuel vehicles to create a large flex-fuel pool; ingredient three: liberally sprinkle in enough information to inform consumers and potential-ethanol-supply-chain participants, including potential blenders and retailers, of the potential demand for ethanol as a fuel; ingredient four: add real, solid seasoning to the mix by fostering development, distribution and the sale of natural-gas-based ethanol to achieve significant increased environmental and cost benefits. Julia Child couldn’t build a better dish for the nation as it simultaneously tries to expand the viability of renewable fuels, and Shakespeare’s friend, Hamlet, would not need antidepressants.