February 10-- The following article from the Wall Street Journal is headlined "The Range Fuels Fiasco."
President Obama's budget next week is expected to include even more subsidies for renewable energy. Before Congress bellies up to that bar one more time, it ought to dissect the fate of Range Fuels and the wood chips fad.
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."
The media and political class swooned. Bush Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman attended the plant's groundbreaking in November 2007, hailing Range as a private-sector "pioneer" that would "reduce our dependence on foreign oil." Range was celebrated in the New York Times and Forbes.
By spring 2008, Range had also attracted $130 million of private funding, the largest venture investment in the nation in the first quarter of that year. Investors included such prominent VC firms as Blue Mountain and Khosla Ventures and California's state pension fund, Calpers. The state of Georgia kicked in a $6 million grant, and all told Range raised $158 million in VC funding in 2008.
The result has not been another Google. By the end of 2008 with no operational plant in sight, Range installed a new CEO, David Aldous. In early 2009, the company said production was not expected until 2010. Undeterred, President Obama's Department of Agriculture provided an $80 million loan. In May 2009, Range's former CEO, Mitch Mandich, explained that the problem was that nobody had figured out how to produce cellulosic ethanol in commercial quantities. Whoops.
In early 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.
As for current Range CEO Mr. Aldous, he's blaming this failure on—brace yourself—Washington's failure to impose a tax on carbon via cap and trade. "The critical issue is really that there's no mechanism to price carbon today," he told a Colorado newspaper. He also blamed "public apathy toward green fuels."
Apathy? How many other products get the Presidential seal of approval, taxpayer subsidies, forced-purchase mandates and glowing media attention?
If there's a silver lining here, it is that the folly of this exercise in corporate welfare has been exposed so quickly. There is no excuse now for throwing more money after bad, or to listen to more self-serving pleas from superrich investors who want taxpayers to finance their politically correct attempts to get even richer.