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MIT/UC Davis professors challenge claims that ethanol production decreased gasoline prices in 2010 and 2011

17 July 2012

Knittel/Smith results for implied gasoline price effects from elimination of ethanol for 2010 using Du/Hayes model and pooled-sample estimates. Results from Du/Hayes are indicated by the large square. Source: Knittel and Smith (2012). Click to enlarge.

Two professors from MIT and UC Davis have released a paper challenging the recent claims by the Renewable Fuel Association (RFA) and US Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack that ethanol production decreased gasoline prices by $0.89 and $1.09 in 2010 and 2011, respectively.

Those estimates are based on a series of papers by University of Wisconsin and Iowa State University economists Xiaodong Du and Dermot Hayes, who used monthly regional data to estimate the relationship between ethanol production and the profit margin for oil refiners. The paper by Prof. Christopher Knittel at MIT and Assoc. Professor Aaron Smith at UC Davis tests the validity of the statistical work underlying the claims and concludes that the results are driven by implausible economic assumptions and “spurious” correlations—correlations that are the result of the fact that over the sample the ratio of gas prices to oil prices fell while, at the same time, ethanol production increased.

Put simply, the empirical results merely reflect the fact that ethanol production increased during the sample period whereas the ratio of gasoline to crude oil prices decreased. These trends make the empirical analysis extremely sensitive to model specification; however, we find that empirical models that are most consistent with economic and statistical theory suggest effects that are near zero and statistically insignificant.

Because ethanol production increased smoothly during the sample period, statistical analysis with this variable is fraught with danger. It is strongly correlated with any trending variable. To illustrate this point, we take the same empirical models in Du and Hayes (2011) and Du and Hayes (2012) and use them to “explain” variables that have no material relationship to US ethanol production: the US price of natural gas and unemployment rates in the US and the European Union.

Our resulting estimates suggest that increases in ethanol production “cause” reductions in natural gas prices but increases in unemployment. The estimates imply that, had we eliminated ethanol in 2010, natural gas prices would have risen by 65 percent and unemployment would have dropped by 60 percent in the US, 12 percent in the EU, and 42 percent in the UK. To further underscore this point, we provide a silly example. Again, using the same empirical models in Du and Hayes (2011) and Du and Hayes (2012), we show that ethanol production “causes” our children to age. Obviously, anyone using these models to advocate eliminating ethanol production to end the Great Recession or make children age more quickly would be greeted by extreme skepticism. We encourage similar skepticism about the estimated effect of ethanol on gasoline prices generated from these models.

—Knittel and Smith

Knittel is the William Barton Rogers Professor of Energy Economics, Sloan School of Management, MIT and Co-director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research at MIT. Smith is an Associate Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California, Davis.

“Policy issues surrounding energy consumption are much too important for them to be driven by false claims. We hope that our paper will re-orient the discussion surrounding these important issues.”
—Chris Knittel

In their paper, they start with a discussion of the basic economics of how the refining industry and note how ethanol production could influence gasoline prices, emphasizing the importance of the difference between short-run effects and long-run effects.

They then explore in some detail the issues attendant to selecting an empirical model for analysis, including time horizon and trend; choice of dependent variable; controlling for inflation; linearity assumptions; dynamics; and standard errors.

Using the Du and Hayes specifications, Knittel and Smith replicated their results, and presented results from several alternative empirical models that address some of the issues they hard earlier outline. They followed Du and Hayes in the collection of the data used in the analysis.

Noting that Du and Hayes never present the estimated effect of ethanol production on gasoline prices from their crack spread models, Knittel and Smith calculate the ethanol effect from the crack spread models as the implied increase in the crack spread from eliminating all ethanol production. They then assumed that gasoline prices rise by this amount, based on the notion that ethanol reduces the refining margin by relaxing capacity constraints and thereby reduces the prices of the refined products.

...the Du-Hayes crack-spread model produces an estimated ethanol effect of just $0.12 per gallon, a small fraction of the $0.89 estimate trumpeted by the RFA. The estimate drops further to $0.09 per gallon and becomes statistically insignificant when we deflate by the CPI, which is much more defensible than the PPI for crude energy material deflator that Du and Hayes use. When we control for the energy costs of refining using oil and natural gas prices, the estimated effect is $0.13 and statistically insignificant. Finally, the model that includes a lagged dependent variable produces the smallest estimated impact is also statistically insignificant.

We hesitate to endorse any of these models. We only claim that the number reported by the RFA and Secretary Vilsack is (a) inconsistent with the basic economics of the industry, (b) at the high end of the distribution of possible estimates, and (c) outside of the distribution of estimates one obtains when taking the economics of the industry seriously. The smoothness of the ethanol production variable means that it is easily conflated with other trends in the data. We eliminate some of these trends by controlling for the energy cost of refining using oil and natural gas prices. Doing so reduces the estimated effect to statistically insignificant amounts of $0.13 in the crack-spread model. We see these results as representing the most plausible effects, conditional on the modeling approach. However, as we note...this modeling approach does not separate the short- and long-run effects, so it is not surprising that the effect is small.

...More important than our empirical work, however, is our discussion of the basic economics of the industry. The results of Du and Hayes are at odds with the historical levels of either the crack spread or crack ratio and are inconsistent with an equilibrium in the oil refining industry. While an instantaneous surprise elimination of all ethanol sold in the US might raise gasoline prices for a short time period, one cannot assume these instantaneous effects would persist for more than a few weeks. This is precisely what Du, Hayes, the RFA, and Secretary Vilsack have done.

—Knittel and Smith

The Knittel/Smith paper has been released as a Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research (MIT CEEPR) discussion paper and soon will be released as a UC Center for Energy and Environmental Economics discussion paper.


July 17, 2012 in Ethanol, Fuels, Oil | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack (0)


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$0.12 per gallon seems realistic since ethanol is just a bit cheaper than gasoline, and gasoline prices have been depressed lately due to the glut. Rising prices of corn due to the drought may even reverse the relationship.

I don't know if it's .09 cents or a dollar nine, I suspect it is somewhere in between, The fact that it contributes to many jobs in the states, and the taxes paid by US employees as compared to the money sent to the far east that is untaxed should make a significant difference.

Jimr: fuel is used to produce the ethanol, so there is only a lesser reduction (about 15%?) reduction in the imported fuel. One of the reasons that I don't like subsidies for ethanol.

This may all be a moot point;

Crude Oil and gasoline prices are artificial set by Oilcos and Oil producing countries and have nothing to do with ethanol price.

Ethanol producers/distributors will soon do the same.

Free market price does not apply.

the drought may affect the cost of hamburgers and soda.. that is good, corn can use a price boost.

We all know that the US has been experiencing some very hot and dry weather conditions, with the country’s most productive agricultural states suffering as a result. However, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), things have gotten so bad that the country is officially experiencing its worst drought since 1956. What is worrying that instead of being limited to only a few states, the NOAA reports that the drought affects over half the country with 55% of the continental US in a “moderate to extreme” stage of drought and as much as 80% of the US is “abnormally dry.”

The drought is affecting crops of corn and soybeans, which has raised concerns that the nation’s food supply may be at risk. Agriculture officials estimate that 30% of the corn crops planted in 18 high-production states were in a poor or very poor condition by last week. And just keeping the rest alive is causing a drawdown of the aquifers which will take many, many years of good rain to refill - rain years we can't count on seeing anymore because the climate has changed. Of course, the high temperatures have also accounted for an increase in forest fires which has made several regions even drier.

This is our new normal.

Luckily we have a vast reserve of corn production, lots of it can be diverted for food if needed.. but expect gasoline at the pump to get a bit more expensive.

It takes a gallon of oil and a gallon equivalent in coal or NG to produce 21 gallons of corn ethanol... and that includes making the fertilizer.

Herm....corn ethanol contains only 1.2 to 1.6 times the energy (i/p) required to produce it in the first place. The net energy gain is rather low. The energy i/p to produce corn ethanol is 7.3% Oil, 75.2% Coal & NG, 17.5 Sun energy. Ounce you include ALL other energies, including human energy, water, machinery wear and tear used etc, the net energy gain is almost NIL and may even be negative.

Watch this;
It's a rebuttal of denialist claims about the MWP but if you watch it to the end you'll see how it links to the drought conditions the USA is in NOW - and what happen in Greenland last week;

them to “explain” variables that have no material relationship to US ethanol production: the US price of natural gas and unemployment rates in the US and the European Union. Relationship Tips by Precise Irrigation

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