Government Subsides Help Distort Science

A $500,000 study released this past Sunday in the peer-reviewed journal, Nature Climate Change, detailed how corn-based biofuels release seven percent more greenhouse gases in the initial five-year time frame compared with conventional gasoline. The study which was paid for by the federal government found that regardless of how much corn residue is taken off the field, the process contributes to global warming.

But administration officials who have devoted more than a billion dollars of taxpayer funds as well as the biofuel industry disagree. DuPont claims that the ethanol it will produce will be 100 percent better than gasoline in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says the study “does not provide useful information relevant to the life cycle greenhouse gas emissions from corn stover ethanol”.

But there are reasons to doubt DuPont and the EPA. DuPont is getting billions in subsidies to produce biofuels. Federal subsidies help its stock price; the company would be foolish if it did not defend biofuels. Meanwhile an Associated Press investigation last year found that the EPA’s analysis of corn-based ethanol failed to accurately predict the environmental consequences. California regulators earlier declared that corn ethanol would not reduce global warming and may in fact make it worse. Other federal studies have reached the same conclusion. David Tillman, a researcher at the University of Minnesota who has researched biofuels emissions from the farm to the tailpipe, says the recent study is the best he has seen on the issue.

This controversy highlights several problems. Despite claims to the contrary, politics seem to play a part at the EPA. The EPA could have simply released a statement that research in this area is still developing and it is sticking with its initial conclusion that biofuels improve the environment. By issuing such a strong rebuke, it seems the organization is not open to new information. Real scientists know new discoveries come along all the time. Scientists do not offer blanket statements, but politicians do.

Further, no matter how well intentioned, subsidies distort the market. Reducing carbon emissions is a good goal, but when government picks a winner everybody else loses. We do not know if there is a better solution that corn-based ethanol. We do not know if the EPA is investing in real science or attaching itself to its preferred winner. The EPA’s role should be to judge the best solution the private sector develops. When the EPA provides subsidies to one technology over another, taxpayer money and possibly scientific integrity are lost forever.

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