The Renewable Fuel Standard: Not as "Green" As You Think


Just last week, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its sobering assessment of looming climate change consequences, including water and land scarcity, warning that no nation or people would be untouched by its effects. And just one month prior, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization declared that the world food price index jumped 2.6 percent — the sharpest climb since mid-2012. What do these reports have in common? Both implicate the United States as a major culprit in exacerbating global problems, including sharp hikes in food prices, mass food shortages, water scarcity and increased emissions and land conversion rates, all thanks to one ill-conceived policy: the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).

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The RFS, first passed in 2005 and aggressively expanded in 2007, was supposed to reduce our dependence on foreign oil while simultaneously addressing climate change. By incentivizing the production and mandating the consumption of first-generation biofuels — predominantly corn-based ethanol — lawmakers hoped to create a transportation fuel revolution. Instead, they've created a legislative monstrosity that has ravaged our land, polluted our air, diverted our water, driven up food prices at home and abroad, put engines at risk and cost U.S. taxpayers billions. These impacts are so devastating and far-reaching that it has become almost impossible to find anyone who supports the status quo — save those who financially gain from the ethanol mandates.

Just how bad has it become? Consider the following:

In order to meet the excessive ethanol mandates in the RFS, more and more land has been converted to grow corn for fuel — not food. In the 16 years prior to RFS implementation, corn acreage in the U.S. rose by just 6 percent. By contrast, in the seven years since the mandate was enacted, corn acreage has spiked by 22 percent — quadruple the growth in half the time. The Environmental Working Group estimates that more than 23 million acres of America's wetlands and grasslands — an area the size of Indiana — have been converted to industrial cropland since 2008, encroaching on our wildlife habitats and gobbling up enough conservation land to cover Yellowstone, Everglades and Yosemite National Parks — combined.

But it's not just our land that's under attack. By 2030, nearly one of every 10 gallons of water consumed in the U.S. will be used for biofuels production. That's more than is cumulatively used by every household in the country. Let that sink in. Making matters worse, fertilizer runoff resulting from the increase in corn production to make ethanol has contributed to an alarming growth of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, leaving marine life asphyxiated and surrounding industries suffering in its wake.

And what about our air? Studies have found that corn ethanol nearly doubles emissions over a 30-year period. According to the EPA, the lifecycle emissions of corn ethanol are higher than that of gasoline. So much for being a cleaner fuel.

The environment is not the only victim. Food producers and anti-hunger activist groups, including Oxfam and ActionAid, have been warning us for years of the policy's impact on food prices and security. In the U.S., the average American family of four saw an increase of $2,000 in their grocery bills during 2012. The RFS is slated to further increase the price of staple commodities like corn, wheat, rice and soybeans by 20 percent. And policy-driven land grabs by global corporations seeking to capitalize on the crop-for-fuel craze have forced family farmers and local citizens off their land, taking access to affordable food away from the world's neediest populations.

The totality of the facts leaves little question: the RFS is a policy that desperately needs to go. No one can afford to continue suffering the economic and environmental damage the policy is causing. While there has been promising motion in Washington, now is the time for true progress. It begins with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy making a resolute stand to reverse the damage being caused by the RFS and finalizing her agency's proposed rule, which would lower the 2014 RFS ethanol mandates. It ends with Congress passing, and President Obama signing, a comprehensive and long-term RFS fix.

Visit SmarterFuelFuture.org for more information about the more than 60 diverse groups advocating for change.