To protect the climate, repeal the biofuel mandate

Ten years ago, the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) was signed into law with the promise that biofuels – corn ethanol in particular – would set the country on a cleaner, greener and more energy secure path. Has the policy, ten years into its tenure, delivered on its promises? Has it helped the environment? The clear and short answer: No. The ecological harm caused by the RFS is reason enough to repeal this ill-considered policy.

What about the claims that renewable fuels help the environment and slow global warming? Unfortunately, in the real-world of commercial biofuel production as opposed to an imaginary world of fantasy fuels advocated by special interests, those claims are untrue. After a decade of expansion, the facts on the ground reveal that biofuels – far from being cleaner-burning alternatives as promised – are worsening greenhouse gas emissions and harming the environment in many other ways.

{mosads}At first, the case for biofuels seems straightforward. After all, plants absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) during growth, and so the carbon absorbed in corn should, in theory, offset the CO2 emitted when corn ethanol is burned.

This so-called carbon neutrality theory is assumed in many reports that assert CO2 reduction benefits for biofuels. The renewable fuel lobbies, and even some leading environmental groups, rely on this untested theory to perpetuate a presumption that biofuels are green.

However, the notion that biofuels are carbon neutral when they replace petroleum fuels is based on an incomplete and incorrect understanding of the science of plant growth and the carbon cycle. Careful analysis — including my own recent, in-depth review of more than 100 studies — has exposed serious flaws in the government-sponsored modeling used to justify the RFS. Once one corrects the carbon accounting, it negates any possibility that corn ethanol might have a climate benefit and entirely erodes the environmental argument for the mandate.

Nearly all of the farm fields used to produce corn ethanol and other biofuels were already growing crops for other purposes. Carbon was already being absorbed from the air by the cropland, and so it is wrong to credit that carbon against the CO2 emitted when the biofuels are burned.

Moreover, growing the quantities of crops needed to produce biofuels requires ecologically devastating land conversions. Fellow University of Michigan researchers have shown how corn ethanol expansion is harming habit for waterfowl and other wildlife. University of Wisconsin scientists found that clearing grasslands to grow crops for meeting the RFS has released as much CO2 as 34 coal power plants in one year.

To turn it into ethanol, corn must be fermented and distilled, releasing even more pollution. Researchers from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration and University of Colorado found that the country’s third largest corn ethanol refinery emits 30 times more pollution than was assumed for the estimates made in support of the RFS.

And finally, ethanol is damaging once it reaches our fuel tanks. Its corrosive properties are harmful to many cars already on the road, and ethanol also degrades the operation of lawn mowers, motor boats and other gasoline-powered equipment used by homeowners and small businesses alike.

From farm fields to tailpipes, the science is clear: when renewable fuels’ real-world emissions are properly assessed, these so-called green fuels worsen the air. Not only has the RFS failed to achieve its promised benefits, it is hurting – not helping – the environment, and represents a step backward for climate protection.

Eight years ago, Congress was misled by special interests when it greatly expanded the RFS. The Environmental Protection Agency is hamstrung by the law and, as it continues to force large volumes of ethanol into the nation’s fuel supply, is pressured into pursuing regulations that are increasingly detached from environmental reality. Fortunately, Congress is revisiting the issue, with bipartisan legislation progressing in both chambers to end this failed policy.

If America is to genuinely address climate change in a meaningful way and become a global leader on this critical issue, Congress should act to repeal the RFS – and the sooner, the better.

DeCicco is a research professor at the University of Michigan Energy Institute, where his work examines transportation energy use and its climate impact.


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