The renewable fuel standard (RFS) came into being in 2005, and was modified in 2007. It had bipartisan support, and with some environmental safeguards, most green groups supported it. It had great intentions, and there were high hopes for the age of renewable biofuels. The early hopes have not been realized, but the mandate endures, leaving a trail of broken promises and environmental damage.
A couple of things happened that ensured that any potential good was outweighed by the damage done. Truly sustainable sources of ethanol were decades away from being economically viable, yet the law required a huge amount of ethanol be blended into the nation’s gasoline. Shell corn filled that gap. So, in spite of the prohibition disqualifying any land cleared for agriculture after 2007 from the ethanol pool, some 7.3 million acres of idle farmland and prairie grasslands went into cropland between 2008 and 2012. Why did this occur? Because the EPA chose to use an aggregate compliance approach that effectively hid the vast amount of land, primarily in the Midwest, that went into cultivation.
With high corn prices resulting from the artificial demand created by the RFS, farmers stood to make money from marginal cropland, including the sensitive prairie pothole region, exactly the kind of land that benefits wildlife the most. The loss of grassland habitat was harmful to many species of birds, mammals, and pollinators. Enrollment in Conservation Reserve Program plummeted from over 36 million acres in 2007 to less than 24 million acres in September 2016. T
The environmental damage doesn’t end there — corn is a fertilizer and pesticide dependent crop. Of the 90 million acres of corn grown in the U.S., 40 percent is grown for ethanol. This contributes greatly to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and to the algae blooms that plague Lake Erie, as well as the 2014 shutdown of Toledo’s drinking water system. Increased production and irrigation of corn in high plains areas puts strains on the limited resources of the Ogallala aquifer.
Ethanol has other issues, as well. Small engines, marine engines, and motorcycles are adversely affected by ethanol. Ethanol burns hotter, reducing fuel efficiency. Ethanol use, particularly in hot weather, creates ozone, a primary component of smog. When all things are factored in, a gallon of ethanol produced from shell corn may have a larger carbon footprint than refining a gallon of gas conventionally.
If all these things are known, why does the ethanol mandate persist? Corn belt senators and large ethanol refiners are big proponents. They recently made a failed bid for the E15 waiver, which would have allowed the sale of a 15 percent ethanol blend in areas previously off limits due to air quality standards. There is nothing inherently wrong with ethanol. It belongs in our nation’s energy arsenal, particularly if it comes from truly sustainable sources. Electric vehicles may be the future of transportation, but moving heavy loads, and air travel will require conventional fuel for the foreseeable future.
Fixing the ethanol mandate will take some common sense reforms. The amount of ethanol required to be blended into the fuel supply should be reduced to a reasonable volume. Ethanol produced from corn kernels should be disqualified from the advanced biofuels pool. The standard’s original intent of keeping land cleared after 2007 from qualifying should be enforced at the field scale, not the aggregate. Cellulosic and other sustainable biofuels should be incentivized appropriately, as should farmers removing marginal cropland from production and enrolling it into CRP. The funding for these should be linked to the Renewable Fuel Standard.
Think it doesn’t affect you? When corn prices climb due to high demand from ethanol refineries, you will see higher prices on many food items that rely on shell corn. Owners of marine engines or other small engines pay for repairs caused by ethanol, or bite the bullet, and pay top dollar for ethanol free fuel. In my area, that means premium, at a premium price.
The time to act is now. It will take bipartisan support, but an issue that puts an environmentally inclined sportsman on the same side as the American Petroleum Institute has broad based opposition. Contact your senators and congressional representative and tell them it’s time to fix this broken program.
David A Imgrund is an Outreach Consultant for the National Wildlife Federation. He lives in Middlesex Township.