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10 years later, Renewable Fuel Standard fails to live up to environmental promises

10 years later, Renewable Fuel Standard fails to live up to environmental promises
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This is a story of unintended consequences. 

Ten years ago President George W. Bush signed into law the Renewable Fuel Standard, a federal program created to advance a number of national priorities: reducing energy dependence on foreign countries, raising farm incomes, and curbing levels of climate pollution emitted by fossil fuels.

Indeed, the Energy Independence and Security Act was heralded as a cure-all for many challenges facing America at the time, and, not surprisingly, attracted strong support from both political parties in Congress, farm organizations and environmental groups, including the National Wildlife Federation.   

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The idea was that under the Renewable Fuel Standard the Environmental Protection Agency would establish mandatory levels of “renewable” fuel produced from corn, soy, and other plant-based fuels to be blended into gasoline in increasing amounts each year.

 

Advances in technology would help so-called “first generation” biofuels such as corn ethanol and soy biodiesel transition to biofuels that emitted even lower levels of climate pollution. Fifteen billion gallons of ethanol is now produced from corn. Astoundingly, 40 percent of all corn grown in the United States goes to ethanol production that ends up in our gas tanks.

But a funny thing happened on the way to euphoria: the law of unintended consequences kicked in. In science (as in life) there are times when outcomes occur that are not the ones expected or intended despite a well-considered plan. In short, all indications are now that the production and use of corn ethanol has done incredible damage to the natural landscape, and actually increased rather than reduced climate-disrupting pollution. 

How could that be? Well, the expected reduction in climate pollution was premised in part on the provision in the 2007 legislation that prohibited the conversion of habitat into new cultivation after December of 2007. Uncultivated habitat acts as an important storage for carbon. When habitat is plowed under, carbon is released into the air. However, the EPA has failed to enforce this provision of the law.

The result is that, between 2008 and 2012, farmers plowed under more than 7 million acres of habitat, mostly to plant corn and soy. That led to the release of carbon pollution equivalent to the annual emissions of 20 million additional cars on the road. It has also sent more farm runoff into our waterways, worsening pollution in drinking water supplies and major water bodies such as the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, and Gulf of Mexico.

Secondly, the law has utterly failed to spur development of the next generation of truly advanced biofuels that have real potential to reduce climate pollution without harming our environment. Plants like switchgrass, a prairie grass native to North America that requires little water or fertilizer to grow, holds great promise, yet efforts to build an economic industry around it or other non-food crops has failed.

Unfortunately, the political will to change a clearly broken ethanol mandate is sorely lacking. The Trump administration has embraced the current flawed status quo, recently announcing that it would not use its authority to fix the ethanol mandate. The EPA has locked in high production levels for the most damaging biofuels next year, while giving essentially no support to the best fuels.

Absent action from the White House, the onus is on the U.S. Congress to fix the corn ethanol mandate.

The National Wildlife Federation is calling on Congress to undertake four actions that can put us back on track in reducing climate pollution while cultivating a healthy farm economy. First, require the EPA to comply with the law and effectively implement the land conversion prohibition. Second, reform the law by reducing the ethanol mandate for corn and soy. Third, focus on cellulosic and truly advanced fuels by giving them the time, market certainty, and support they need to become viable. Finally, establish funding to protect and restore wildlife habitat and water quality.

The conservation goals of the Renewable Fuel Standard remain as important now as they were 10 years ago. But, the status quo is not working. Congress needs to take stock of the lessons learned over the last decade and implement common-sense reforms that work for family farmers and protect public health, the environment and wildlife — keeping us moving forward on our clean fuel goals the right way. The time to act is now.

David DeGennaro is an agriculture policy specialist with the National Wildlife Federation.