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Biofuel boondoggle: US subsidy aids Europe's drivers

A maneuver called 'splash and dash' cost US taxpayers perhaps $30 million last year, but the charges are rising fast.

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Fast-rising worries over global warming have created a biofuel boondoggle.

Called "splash and dash," "touch and go," or an unfair trade practice, it features biofuels traders who exploit a US tax credit, European drivers who get cheaper diesel fuel, and American taxpayers, who are footing the bill.

It also illustrates a cautionary tale of how government incentives, no matter how well-intentioned, can sometimes be subverted into windfalls for the few.

"You have US taxpayers providing a very nice tax incentive, and they're not receiving any energy-security benefit or added fuel to the marketplace or benefits to US development in return," says Joe Jobe, chief executive officer of the National Biodiesel Board, which represents US biodiesel producers.

So far, the subsidies involved are relatively small – conservatively estimated at $30 million last year – but they're rising fast. And while efforts to close the loophole are under way in Congress, they're complicated by competing interests.

Created under the 2004 American Jobs Act, the "blenders tax credit" was supposed to boost US production of biodiesel by encouraging US diesel marketers to blend regular petroleum diesel with fuel made from soybeans or other agricultural products. It succeeded, perhaps too well.

Attracted by the $1-per-gallon subsidy, US diesel-fuel marketers mixed away, setting off a nationwide boom in biodiesel refinery building. But no one anticipated splash-and-dash.

The maneuver begins with a shipload of biodiesel from, say, Malaysia, which pulls into a US port like Houston, says John Baize, an industry consultant in Falls Church, Va. Unlike domestic diesel-biodiesel blends, which typically contain from 1 to 10 percent of biodiesel, the Malaysian fuel starts off as 100 percent biodiesel, typically made from palm oil.

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