President Biden has placed the Department of Agriculture (USDA) at the center of his administration’s focus on climate change. “We see farmers making American agriculture first in the world to achieve net-zero emissions and gaining new sources of income in the process,” Biden said in December. He proposes that USDA create a carbon bank from which it “would conduct a reverse carbon credit auction by offering to buy tons of carbon and GHG reductions from producers and forest landowners generated through improved land management practices.”
Excitement about carbon sequestration markets in agriculture has spread to the private sector as well, with several companies vying to tap into this new stream of revenue from farms. Policies that encourage farmers to sequester carbon are undoubtedly a good idea, but as historians who have studied ethanol policies, we urge policymakers to heed the lessons of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) to ensure that new carbon farming policies avoid the pitfalls that befell the RFS over the past 15 years.
The RFS requires oil refiners to blend billions of gallons of biofuels into the US transportation fuel supply. Part of the 2005 Energy Policy Act, it was updated and expanded in the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act. Yet its origins date back to the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the Clean Air Act mandated that metro areas with severe air pollution use oxygenated gasoline. Refiners added MTBE or ethanol to gasoline to meet the oxygen standards, but then most states banned MTBE because it caused severe water pollution and ethanol was the last oxygenate standing. The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and then a sharp rise in global oil prices stoked fears about energy independence and security, further pushing ethanol’s rise. The RFS replaced the oxygenate standard with a mandate that the U.S. blend 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol into the fuel supply by 2012. In 2007, the law was expanded to require 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol and another 21 billion gallons of advanced biofuels in the fuel supply by 2022. The RFS’s 15-year history offers important lessons for carbon farming policies.
First, policies to promote carbon farming should avoid byzantine complexities and loopholes that may be lucrative but lose sight of the desired endpoint. The RFS boosted the U.S. ethanol industry with the straightforward goals of decreasing air pollution and the nation’s dependence on imported oil. Yet today’s debates over the law require degrees in law and chemical engineering to understand the alphabet soup of regulations and rules: RINs, SREs, RVPs, E-15, etc. Fuel systems are complex, so a degree of technicality is unavoidable. But some companies have spent more time gaming the system than meeting the law’s spirit. For example, there is currently a “biogas goldrush” as investors collect and sell methane from manure ponds to take advantage of the RFS (and California’s low-carbon fuel standard), which count such gas as cellulosic ethanol and grant it a lucrative D3 RIN credit. Of course, companies try to take advantage of available incentives, but it’s undeniable that such efforts don’t advance the law’s original goals. Powerful incentives will push carbon farming policies in this same direction. Policymakers will need to balance the complexity of regenerative agriculture with the reality that some of the world’s wealthiest and most politically powerful corporations stand waiting to take advantage of any incentives the law creates. More importantly, whatever agency enforces carbon farming policies do so based on the science and free from political meddling. The RFS left enforcement in the hands of the EPA, which has waffled and delayed under political pressure from the Trump administration. Decarbonization is too urgent of a problem to let it fall into the same trap.
Second, carbon farming policies will need to be adaptable to new technologies and scientific data. The RFS offers a cautionary tale of an energy and agricultural policy designed at a specific moment — when oil prices were high and the U.S. seemed dangerously dependent on foreign oil — that was quickly overtaken by events. Forcing the use of ethanol made sense in 2005 and 2007 but the energy landscape changed drastically with the fracking revolution, a technological breakthrough that most policymakers did not foresee. The United States moved into the surprising position as the world’s leading oil producer, helping to keep the country dependent on fossil fuels and undermining one of the RFS’s central rationales. The lesson for carbon farming is that policies must be flexible. For example, if scientists discover that soils are sequestering less carbon than expected — a real possibility given the state of the science — the incentives need to reward only those practices that truly keep carbon in the ground. Other carbon sequestration technologies, such as direct air capture, could become more economically or technologically viable in the future. In that case, the government should direct funding to technologies that remove and store as much carbon as possible rather than cling to something like carbon farming.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, the history of the RFS offers a stark reminder that there are no silver bullet solutions in agriculture. When high oil prices and political instability threatened the U.S. economy in the early 2000s, many policymakers saw ethanol as a panacea. As comedian Stephen Colbert joked at the time, “we solved the energy crisis. The answer was ethanol. Corn plus magic equals gasoline.” Fifteen years later, we understand that ethanol was hardly a cure-all for energy shortages or the environment. It has solved some problems — namely what to do with all the corn grown in the United States — but it has created new ones, including more and more nitrate-laced water in the Corn Belt and depleted topsoil. So it will be for carbon farming. Changing agricultural practices to sequester more carbon is undoubtedly a good idea. But it is just one of many changes needed to make agriculture more sustainable in the 21st century. Once carbon sequestration dollars begin flowing to farmers, it will be crucial to remember that it is just one solution among many needed to tackle our climate crisis.
Jeffrey T. Manuel is associate professor of history at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Thomas D. Rogers is associate professor of history at Emory University. They are writing a book on the transnational history of biofuels in the United States and Brazil.