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Central Planning vs. The Market Economy

It's not enough to "Drill, baby, drill!" We also have to "Frac, baby, frac!"

Today’s business news contains two seemingly unrelated stories, both on the energy front. The first tells the tale of Range Fuels’ foray into cellulosic ethanol, the process of making ethanol fuel, not from foodstuffs but from waste products such as wood chips. Even with government assitance with financing and with a Congressional mandate requiring customers to use their inferior fuel, Range Fuels’ project is a bust, to the tune of $250 million, a good bit of that taxpayer money.

The Range Fuels Fiasco

As taxpayer tragedies go, Broomfield, Colorado-based Range Fuels has all the plot elements—splashy headlines, subsidies and opportunistic venture capitalists. Range got its start in 2006 when George W. Bush used a State of the Union address to extol wood chips as a source for cellulosic ethanol that would break America’s “addiction to oil.” Mr. Bush pledged that with government funding cellulosic ethanol would be “practical and competitive within six years.”

Vinod Khosla stepped in with his hand out. The political venture capitalist founded Range Fuels and in March 2007 it received a $76 million grant from the Department of Energy—one of six cellulosic projects the Bush Administration selected for $385 million in grants. Range said it would build the nation’s first commercial cellulosic plant, near Soperton, Georgia, using wood chips to produce 20 million gallons a year in 2008, with a goal of 100 million gallons. Estimated cost: $150 million.

Fast forward to 2010:

… the EPA said Range would finally produce some fuel in 2010—but only four million gallons, not 100 million, and of methanol, not cellulosic ethanol. So taxpayers have committed $162 million (along with at least that much in private financing) to produce four million gallons of a biofuel that others have been making in quantity for decades. This politically directed investment might have gone to far more useful purposes.

(Click here to access article w/o subscription)

Compare and contrast…

…with the tale of the marketplace. Oil operators, encouraged by the phenomenal success of natural gas in the shale plays, are enjoying better-than-expected success in oil-prone shales:

New drilling method opens vast oil fields in US

Companies are investing billions of dollars to get at oil deposits scattered across North Dakota, Colorado, Texas and California. By 2015, oil executives and analysts say, the new fields could yield as much as 2 million barrels of oil a day – more than the entire Gulf of Mexico produces now.

This new drilling is expected to raise U.S. production by at least 20 percent over the next five years. And within 10 years, it could help reduce oil imports by more than half, advancing a goal that has long eluded policymakers.

How much of our time, wealth and national security must we fritter away wastefully, relearning the lessons that history has tried to teach us many times over?

Cross-posted at VladEnBlog.

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