M-RCBG Faculty Working Paper No. 2010-12

How Good Politics Results in Bad Policy: The Case of Biofuel Mandates

Robert Z. Lawrence

September 2010

Abstract

Biofuels have become big policy and big business. Government targets, mandates, and blending quotas have created a growing demand for biofuels. Some say that the U.S. biofuels industry was created by government policies. But recently, biofuels have become increasingly controversial. In this paper Lawrence argues that the growing list of concerns about the impact of biofuel targets and mandates—are the predictable result of a failure to follow the basic principles of good policy-making. Good policy-making requires developing a policy goal or target (i.e., reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reducing oil consumption, or increasing rural economic development) and designing an instrument to efficiently meet that particular goal. The more precise the goal, the better. In addition, for each target, there should be at least one policy instrument. You cannot meet two goals with only one instrument. Lawrence argues that the current U.S. biofuels mandates do not represent the most efficient or precise instrument to meet any of the policy’s stated goals.

While this paper argues against mandates, it should not be understood as an attack on all biofuels policies. Three are especially worthy of consideration. First, there are good reasons for the government to subsidize research on different alternative sources of energy such as biofuels. Second, there may be a role for government coordination and investment in biofuels infrastructure which are essentially public goods that private actors cannot undertake on their own. And third, there are also good reasons for removing the tariffs that are imposed by both the European Union and the United States on imported ethanol and biodiesel. These trade barriers not only reduce any potential environmental benefits that could be achieved from using these products, but also limit the development benefits than poor countries might enjoy from producing them.

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