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Biofuels bust

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Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Those who lament the failure of biofuels lament commonsense rejection of products that aren't commercially viable, existing only because government tilts the playing field in their favor.

The Economist notes the drawbacks of “first generation” biofuels. Think of federally mandated diversion of 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop to produce ethanol blended into gasoline, which raises food prices and can cause poor engine performance and damage.

About fledgling “second generation” biofuels derived from agricultural waste, non-foodstock plants, even algae, The Economist writes: “Start-ups went bust, surviving companies scaled back their plans and, as prices of first-generation biofuels rose, consumer interest waned.”

And well it should, as fracking has “unlocked new oil and gas reserves and provided an alternative path to energy independence.” The Economist even notes that greater fuel efficiency and “lingering economic weakness” has “demand for fuel ... waning in many developed countries” and that large-scale “second generation” biofuel production would require “a staggering quantity of feedstock” for exotic, Rube Goldberg-like processes whose end products cost far more than conventional fuels.

Many types of biofuel research are worth pursuing. But no one should delude himself: Deployed before they're commercially viable, biofuels can't succeed without artificial government support. That's market wisdom to heed — not lament.

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