Washington Turns Science to Science Fiction

Rich Tucker

2/16/2013 12:01:00 AM - Rich Tucker

“If you build it,” an Iowa corn farmer was told in the movie Field of Dreams, “they will come.” That worked out so well for all concerned that the federal government is reviving the approach, with some slight edits. “If we mandate it, the science will come,” seems to be Washington’s motto.

Instead, government has ended up replacing science with, well, fiction. Consider the push for renewable fuels.

It’s easy to see why lawmakers would want to encourage Americans to grow energy rather than dig it out of the ground. But in their eagerness to create an industry, lawmakers often go too far. In 2007, Congress passed a requirement that refiners add something called cellulosic biofuel to their gasoline. It’s made from non-edible plant material -- wood chips, corn husks, and so forth. The problem: Nobody could produce such biofuel on a commercial scale.

Still, hope triumphed over reality. Lawmakers demanded that refiners use 100 million gallons in 2010, 250 million in 2011, and half a billion in 2012. Refiners ended up breaking the law, though, because they used no cellulosic biofuel. Only about 20,000 gallons have ever been produced commercially, and all of that was exported to Brazil last year.

The federal government actually benefitted, in a way, because the Environmental Protection Agency fined refiners $6.8 million in 2011 for failing to use a product that didn’t exist. Good thing it’s not called the “Reality” protection agency.

EPA had wanted to pocket another $8 million or so in fines for last year, but a federal court said it cannot. Still, that isn’t stopping the agency from trying to squeeze more money out of refiners. This year, EPA says it will demand refiners use 14 million gallons of this non-existent product. Expect another lawsuit to ensue.

This matters to everyone, because we’re all paying more for gasoline than we need to, because when they’re hit with fines, refiners simply add their higher costs into the price of a gallon of gasoline. But another EPA program may end up costing you even more.

Two years ago, EPA declared that E15 -- gasoline that’s 15 percent ethanol -- is safe for use in any car made after 2001. Currently refiners are required to use 10 percent ethanol, as virtually any gas pump in the country warns you.

But in tests completed last month, the American Petroleum Institute found that E15 led to, “an elevated incidence of fuel pump failures, fuel system component swelling, and impairment of fuel measurement systems in some of the vehicles tested. E15 could cause erratic and misleading fuel gauge readings or cause faulty check engine light illuminations. It also could cause critical components to break and stop fuel flow to the engine.” None of these problems occurred when E10 or gasoline without ethanol was used.

The problem, again, is one of science. EPA approved E15 without waiting for testing on it to be completed. As the API report notes, “When Congress passed the law, it could not know it was creating this problem. Today we know. The answer is to repeal the [Renewable Fuel Standard] before it puts millions of vehicles and many motorists at risk.”

That’s one answer. A more comprehensive answer would be for Congress to stop passing vague laws, such as the RFS, and then expecting bureaucrats to find ways to implement them.

Today’s bureaucrats like to claim there’s a scientific reason that they have so much power. As Matthew Spalding writes for The Heritage Foundation, “They rule over virtually every aspect of our daily lives, ostensibly in the name of the American people but in actuality by the claimed authority of science, policy expertise, and administrative efficiency.”

Sadly, we’re seeing not only a usurpation of political power by today’s bureaucrats, but a perversion of science as well. Instead of having Washington decide what’s best for Americans, let’s repeal the EPA’s various mandates and let the market decide what fuel is best in our cars.