A Misguided Plan to Replace the Biofuel Mandate
Today members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee considered a misguided plan to replace the existing biofuel mandate with a new octane standard for gasoline and changes to ensure that ethanol can make up an even larger share of our fuel. Just for good measure, the bill’s authors have air-dropped in an unrelated attempt to help car makers skirt mileage standards.
Locking in polluting fuels for decades to come while encouraging the destruction of even more wildlife habitat to grow corn for fuel is exactly the wrong way to fix our broken biofuel policy.
Ethanol’s insurance plan
Ethanol is an octane-booster in fuel. Its higher oxygen content relative to gasoline means that it can burn hotter, and higher octane fuels in more efficient car engines can make cars more fuel efficient and less polluting. The culmination of two years of hearings and discussions, the bill draft being considered is an attempt to trade the Renewable Fuel Standard for higher octane fuels and the cars that can run on them.
However, it is hard to imagine a clearer attempt at a bait-and-switch giveaway for the corn ethanol industry. For example, the draft bill, formally called the 21st Century Transportation Fuels Act, would eliminate the current requirement that our gasoline contain corn ethanol starting in 2023. Yet it also requires that new cars built in that year and beyond be capable of running on a blend of 20 percent ethanol – double the amount that is currently contained in our fuel. And it removes smog rules that currently prevent higher ethanol blends, which can worsen air quality.
The ethanol industry badly needs changes like these in order to expand. Under the existing Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), corn ethanol is limited to 15 billion gallons per year. Yet, thanks to those smog rules as well as the fact that higher blends of ethanol are not compatible with older cars and current fuel infrastructure, the practical limit of a blend of 10 percent ethanol actually keeps us below that 15 billion gallons. Without changing the rules and creating a new fuel that can gobble up more ethanol, there would be no way for the industry to run more of its product through our cars and trucks.
It is true that oil refiners could meet the new octane standard without using more ethanol, and the bill’s authors would be quick to say that the bill makes fuel production more market-based than the current biofuel mandate. But the corn ethanol industry has been extremely successful in finding a market for its products, and eliminating barriers is the first step in ramping up production.
The wrong solution to a very real problem
As the National Wildlife Federation has repeatedly pointed out, growing demand for corn ethanol and soy biodiesel has wreaked havoc on wildlife habitat, water quality, and our climate. The Environmental Protection Agency, itself, has documented these impacts, drawing on hundreds of scientific studies.
Rather than replacing the mandate that helped drive all of these adverse impacts with a new system for making it worse, we need to transition away from polluting liquid fuels all together. Congress should replace the RFS with the infrastructure and incentives needed to power cars and trucks with renewable electricity that doesn’t spoil wildlife and natural resources. That would be a real 21st Century transportation policy.