The nation “celebrated” an anniversary late last year. It marked the 10th year that corn ethanol has been required to be blended into our fuel supply.
As a hunter, angler, and environmentalist, I didn’t feel like celebrating. In late 2007, a well-intentioned, poorly executed, and laxly enforced plan to produce domestic, environmentally friendly sources of fuel emerged. It failed in every facet. It produced environmental and economic damage, and may have actually produced more greenhouse gases than it was supposed to eliminate.
Ten years of the Renewable Fuel Standard is enough. We need a new policy.
The allure of a domestic, non-petroleum based fuel supply is strong. Fuel can be produced from truly sustainable sources, but currently it isn’t economically viable. And yet the law requires billions of gallons of ethanol be blended into the fuel supply. So, in spite of the environmental safeguards included in the law, corn emerged as the go-to source of ethanol.
By creating an enormous, artificial demand for corn, the Renewable Fuel Standard changed the landscape of America’s prairie grasslands. Land that had reverted to prairie grassland, land that had not been under cultivation for some three decades was now being plowed up for corn production.
The 7 million plus acres of land that came under cultivation since the 2007 enactment has been a source of many environmental ills. The loss of prairie habitat harms pollinators, including Monarch butterflies. The cultivation of marginal wetland areas in the prairie pothole region harms waterfowl. The prairie pothole region produces a high percentage of all the ducks in North America.
A study done by the University of Wisconsin reported that 115 million tons of carbon were released from 2008-2012 during the time of this rapid cropland expansion. Algal blooms in Lake Erie and the expansion of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico are tied to excess nutrient runoff from agricultural sources. In 2015,the city of Des Moines, Iowa, Water Works took the unusual step of suing three upriver counties for the excess nutrients that forced the city to use an expensive reverse osmosis system to remove the nitrates from the city’s drinking water.
The push for corn for ethanol has caused expansion of corn production into areas where the crop needs to be irrigated, resulting in additional stresses on limited resources like the Ogallala aquifer.
Any user of a small engine or marine engine can tell you that ethanol is the nemesis of these engines. Ethanol burns hotter and is corrosive to the soft components of these engines. It is common for marine fuel to sit for long periods of time. Ethanol separates under these circumstances, rendering the fuel useless, and the ethanol sitting at the bottom of fuel tank causes rapid corrosion.
The news for automotive users is better regarding ethanol’s performance in car engines, but, since ethanol produces less energy per gallon than gas, you essentially are paying a mileage penalty for using ethanol.
I am advocating for some common sense reforms to fix a broken law. The amount of ethanol mandated to be blended needs to be drastically reduced. Farmers need to be encouraged, and amply compensated for removing cropland from cultivation and placing it into conservation reserve programs. Truly sustainable cellulosic biofuel sources should encouraged and subsidized. The funds for both these purposes should be tied to the Renewable Fuel Standard. Shell corn should be excluded from the biofuels pool, and a limit placed on the amount of biodiesel sourced from virgin vegetable oils.
It would seem that all the promises of the Renewable Fuel Standard have failed to materialize. We get environmental destruction on multiple counts. We don’t see a reduction in greenhouse emissions. We experience problems with marine and small engines. We experience mileage loss and therefore, a monetary loss, every time we’re forced to fill our tanks with an ethanol blend.
Legislative inertia and strong support from corn belt legislators have kept the status quo on corn ethanol, but cracks are showing in its’ support. Sportsmen and women, and everyone who prizes clean air, clean water, and wildlife habitat should be united for reform. The time is nigh to contact your congressional representatives and urge them to reform the Renewable Fuel Standard.