Ethanol rules causing more harm than good

As I meet with Vermonters across the state, I frequently hear stories about the inadvertent harm caused by the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).

This well-intentioned policy has been an overwhelming flop for a diverse group of people and businesses in my home state. The negative impact on their livelihoods highlights the desperate need for Congress to reform the RFS.

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Vermont’s dairy farmers have suffered from record-high feed prices as they compete with the ethanol mandate to feed their herds, and at restaurants and grocery stores families are being hit by sticker shock as the price of food continues to rise. Similarly, I’ve heard from frustrated small-engine owners about the damage the RFS is having on their equipment. Whether it be lawnmowers, weed eaters or even my own chainsaw, ethanol is ruining engines and infrastructure.

When it was first passed into law in 2005, and subsequently expanded in 2007, the RFS seemed to offer an array of benefits. By encouraging development of corn ethanol and other advanced biofuels, the RFS appeared to provide a way to diversify our nation’s fuel supply, reduce our reliance on foreign oil, cut greenhouse gas emissions and support rural communities. Projections showing an increase in gasoline demand also seemed to promise an expanding marketplace for these biofuels.

But this potential has not been realized.

While some will have you believe the food and feed price increases are the result of other circumstances, the fact is that nearly 40 percent of our corn crop is being eaten up by ethanol and that an enticing financial incentive is causing many farmers to forgo planting food in favor of corn fuel.

Although the amount of ethanol that can be safely blended into gasoline is currently capped at 10 percent, the RFS volumetric mandate will continue to increase the blend amount. When it was signed into law, policymakers assumed gasoline demand would continue to grow, allowing more ethanol to be blended into the fuel supply. However, the projections have proven wrong, and we have reached a point where more ethanol cannot be safely blended without harming existing infrastructure.

I have also heard from stakeholders about the harmful effect the RFS is having on our environment. The insatiable desire for corn has led to millions of acres of delicate wetlands and grasslands being brought into production, a process that is damaging ecosystems and hurting biodiversity. The National Academy of Sciences has noted that overall ethanol production and use lowers air and water quality. And according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) analysis, the lifecycle emissions of corn ethanol in 2012 were higher than those of gasoline, with no end in sight.

That is why I have worked with Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), Jim Costa (D-Calif.) and Steve Womack (R-Ariz.) on legislation to make needed changes to the RFS. The RFS Reform Act (H.R. 1462) is a practical piece of legislation that Congress should pass that would begin to reverse the damage that has already been done by the failed RFS. The legislation would remove the corn ethanol mandate from the RFS and cap the blend into gasoline at 10 percent. It would also preserve the mandate for the fledgling cellulosic biofuels industry in order to ensure that a more sustainable second-generation biofuel continues to develop.

As the EPA considers what volume of ethanol to require in gasoline this year, I urge the agency to account for the detrimental impact this policy is having on the ground in places like Vermont.

Welch has represented Vermont’s at-large Congressional District since 2007. He sits on the Energy and Commerce; and the Oversight and Government Reform committees.