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A Federal Ethanol Mandate: Is it Worth it?

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Publication Date: November 2003

Publisher(s): Reason Foundation

Author(s): Matthew McCormick; Scott Freifeld; Lynne Kiesling

Topic: Energy (Fuels)

Type: Report


The Environmental Protection Agency formed a Blue Ribbon Panel in 1999 to study the health benefits of fuel oxygenates. The Blue Ribbon Panel report highlighted the fact that the air quality benefits of oxygenated fuel are unclear. The environmental problems caused by MTBE reinforce that concern, but little analysis has addressed the combined air, water and soil effects of ethanol.

In this study we perform a benefit-cost analysis of the ethanol mandate as an oxygenate; our findings support the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Panel. We also analyze the political economy dimensions underlying the success of federal ethanol mandate provisions in both the House and Senate proposals.

That success rests on the uncoupling of ethanol as a renewable energy source from ethanol as an oxygenate, a subtle piece of political rhetoric. We conclude that ethanol is not actually a renewable energy source, given the fossil fuel use required to produce ethanol.