Frustrations mount in RFS debate despite simple solutions

The post then highlighted environmental and health concerns the RFS was designed to help alleviate, but a compelling study, accounting for incentives to increase croplands, indicates the policy can actually lead to higher greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Over the course of 30 years, the land-use impact of corn ethanol is expected to double GHG emissions over current fuel-generated levels, according to Princeton and Iowa State University researchers. Even biofuels from switchgrass, if grown on converted U.S. corn lands, could increase the emissions baseline by 50 percent.

Next, the post discussed how the RFS stimulates the economy — but failed to acknowledge RFS’s role in the American farms that have gone bankrupt and the thousands of U.S. jobs lost. According to the Environmental Working Group, “Animal agriculture supports more than 1.8 million jobs, roughly 20 times as many jobs as the ethanol industry offers.” And last year, 2,000 of the nation’s feedlots were forced to shut down mostly due to high feed prices; as Jillian Melchior at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity put it, “Feedlot operators are especially vulnerable to ethanol’s influence on the cost of corn.”

In an effort to demonstrate that consumers are demanding ethanol, the post went on to cite the number of flex fuel vehicles (FFVs) — vehicles specially designed to be fueled with mid- and high-level ethanol blends — on the road. But run the numbers from the Energy Information Administration’s own reports and you’ll find that only about 5 percent of vehicles on the road are FFVs, and “most are not using E85” (the strongest ethanol blend). One reason may be due to the fuel’s lower energy content compared to its cost.

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Perhaps most boldly, the article claims that the RFS created “new markets for U.S. agricultural products.” In reality, the RFS is harming agricultural commodity markets and inciting skyrocketing food prices. In addition to burdening consumers in the United States, inflated food costs are devastating already struggling populations around the world. The New York Times reported earlier this year that high corn prices brought on by biofuel policies have caused tortilla prices to double and egg prices to triple in Guatemala, a country where two-thirds of the average family income is spent on food and nearly half of the nation’s children are chronically malnourished.

Whether the article is a well-intentioned attempt to discuss the original philosophy behind RFS or just a reinterpretation of RFS failures, public officials should not be confused into complacency. Congress has focused its attention on the policy because after 8 years and widespread negative consequences, the RFS is still not delivering on its key objectives, including making the United States more energy independent. Instead, technological advancements have allowed access to new supplies of domestic oil and natural gas, which — combined with lower fuel demand — have reduced the United States’ reliance on foreign energy suppliers. (Interestingly, the U.S. is importing Brazilian biofuel in an effort to meet RFS mandates, an unforeseen, but alas necessary, step to RFS compliance that even ethanol lobbyists call “economically absurd.”)

Also high on the list of frustrations is the billions in costs to taxpayers and the economy from RFS so far, and the prospect of more ahead. A number of environmental groups have expressed disappointment that in propping up ethanol, the government has deterred investment in other fuel sources that are greener, and possibly cheaper and more practical, than ethanol. Others are outraged by the simple fact that the ethanol industry is still failing to stand completely on its own feet, burdening consumers and the rest of the economy to deal with its fallout.

Clearly, no one except corn growers is satisfied with how the RFS is playing out. Even the EPA, which administers the policy, last month reduced 2013 RFS cellulosic ethanol requirements by 57 percent — lowering it from the original 14 million gallons down to 6 million gallons. The agency also announced plans to adjust the 2014 RFS blending requirements, further acknowledgement that its program is unrealistic and unworkable.

Yet, as my colleague Nan Swift recently wrote, “the EPA’s repeated energy fumbles only underscore the need for Washington to stop picking winners and losers and get out of the energy market.” All of this nonsense — government-bestowed favors, environmental harm, lost jobs, higher consumer prices and worsening global hunger — could come to an end if elected leaders (and unelected regulators) allow consumer choice to determine the direction of our nation’s fuel policy. This simple fix would help assure that only truly competitive fuels are brought online and spare the nation more RFS-scale turmoil.

Until then, expect the chaos to continue.

Sepp is executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union.