THERE MAY NOT have been a party in Times Square to celebrate, but two of the most wasteful subsidies ever to clutter the Internal Revenue Code went out with the old year. Congress declined to renew either the 45-cent-per-gallon tax credit for corn-based ethanol or the 54-cent-per-gallon tariff on imported ethanol, so both expired Dec. 31.
Taxpayers will no longer have shell out roughly $6 billion per year for a program that badly distorted the global grain market, artificially raised the cost of agricultural land and did almost nothing to curb greenhouse gas emissions. A federal law requiring the use of 36 billion gallons of ethanol for fuel by 2022 still props up the industry, but the tax credit’s expiration is a victory for common sense just the same.
Meanwhile, a lesser-known but equally dubious energy tax break also expired when the year ended Saturday: the credit that gave electric-car owners up to $1,000 to defray the cost of installing a 220-volt charging device in their homes — or up to $30,000 to install one in a commercial location. As a means of reducing carbon emissions, electric cars and plug-in hybrid electrics are no more cost-effective than ethanol. What’s more, only upper-income consumers can afford to buy an electric vehicle (EV); so the charger subsidy is a giveaway to the well-to-do.
The same goes for the $7,500 tax credit that the government offers purchasers of electric vehicles, a subsidy that, alas, did not expire at year’s end. The Obama administration says that the credit helps build a market for EVs, which helps create jobs. Given the price of eligible models, like the $100,000 Fisker Karma, that rationale sounds an awful lot like trickle-down economics.
Backers of the charger tax credit may lobby Congress to renew it when lawmakers tackle the payroll tax extension issue again in the new year. We hope that Congress says no. Not only is it a case study in upward income redistribution, it also would represent a deepening of the taxpayers’ commitment to what looks increasingly like an industry not ready for prime time.
Sales of electric vehicles were disappointing in 2011, with the Volt coming in below the 10,000 units forecast. In addition to its high price, the Volt brand is suffering from news that some of its batteries burst into flames after government road tests. Meanwhile, Fisker, the recipient of more than half a billion dollars in low-interest Energy Department loans, repeatedly delayed the introduction of its ballyhooed Karma — while repeatedly raising the sticker price. And now Fisker has announced a recall of the cars because of a potential defect in its batteries — made by A123 Systems, another large recipient of Energy Department support.
Evidence is mounting that President Obama was overly optimistic to pledge that there would be 1 million EVs on the road by 2015. Electric cars are not likely to form a significant part of the solution to America’s dependence on foreign oil, or to global warming, in the near future. They simply pose too many issues of price and practicality to attract a large segment of the car-buying public. More prosaic fuel-economy innovations such as conventional hybrids, clean-diesel cars and advanced gasoline engines all show much more promise than electrics.
The ethanol credit was on the books for 30 years before it finally died. Let’s hope Congress can start unwinding the federal government’s bad investment in electric vehicles faster than that.