Top 10 Reasons I’m Not Celebrating 10 Years of the Ethanol Mandate
Ten years ago today, President George W. Bush signed into law the ethanol mandate called the Renewable Fuel Standard. Intended to reduce reliance on foreign oil and the emission of climate pollution while spurring production of new types of home-grown fuel, the policy has left a decade’s worth of failure and unintended destruction in its wake.
Lots of people dislike the mandate to blend ethanol and other biofuels into gasoline, for lots of different reasons. In honor of its 10th birthday, I am going to mention my top 10.
1. More Carbon in the Air – Not Less
The law establishing the mandate sets specific requirements for biofuels to reduce carbon and other climate pollution below the levels of the gasoline they replace. Yet our reliance so far on relatively dirty corn ethanol and soy biodiesel rather than cleaner alternatives means we aren’t getting the promised benefits. The National Research Council projected that using current technology to produce these fuels would actually release more pollution than gasoline through this year. What’s worse, a recent study determined that large-scale land conversion into crop production following the law’s implementation led to the release of as much carbon into the air as an additional 20 million cars on the road each year from 2008 to 2012. Instead of helping combat climate change, the law has made it worse.
2. Less Wildlife Habitat
About that conversion of land to crop production… Researchers from the University of Wisconsin published a study showing that 7.3 million acres of land had been plowed under – an area larger than the state of Massachusetts, and much of it for the very first time. These lands had previously housed a wide range of wildlife species such as ducks and other waterfowl; bobolinks and burrowing owls; bumble bees and monarch butterflies; and swift foxes, prairie dogs, and pronghorn antelope. Now they produce mostly corn and soybeans.
3. Vanishing Native Prairie
The vast majority of new cropland over the last decade had previously been open grasslands, including native prairie. The American Prairie is a national ecological treasure, home to hundreds and hundreds of plant, animal, and insect species. Yet it is also the most threatened ecosystem in North America. Less than 10 percent of all native prairie remains, with some types hovering below three percent. Demand for fuel crops has only hastened their destruction.
4. Fouled Waters and Resurgent Algae
In addition to planting millions of acres of new cropland, farmers doubled down on existing acres. Instead of leaving fields fallow for a season to rest, rotating between crops and livestock, and rotating between corn, soy, and other crops, many farmers also switched to all corn/soy all the time. All this additional production means more chemical fertilizers are being applied, leading to more runoff of nutrients polluting our water. Massive blooms of algae feeding on these nutrients have choked waters around the country, killed fish and other wildlife, and shut down drinking water supplies.
5. Dead Engines
Ethanol burns hotter and is more corrosive than regular gasoline. Smaller engines, in particular, are not built to withstand it. Ethanol has caused untold damage to lawnmowers and chainsaws, and boat owners know full well how harmful it has been to their engines. All this has led to costly repairs for consumers, fishermen, and recreationists.
6. More Tropical Deforestation
The increasing amounts of soybean oil being diverted into biodiesel have left a gap in global demand for vegetable oil that has to be filled somehow. Tropical forests in South America, Malaysia, and Indonesia are being felled for soybean and palm oil, reversing a trend of declining deforestation.
7. More Pressure on Food Prices
Corn and soy products are infused in almost every processed food item in the grocery store, and are the primary feed for the livestock that end up as meat on our plates. The ethanol mandate guarantees that a certain amount of these crops will be dedicated to fuel first, regardless of other market conditions. So if there is a drought (as there was in 2012) or other event that sends prices crop prices soaring, other portions of the supply chain – like food – are forced to take a bigger hit. Any impact on food prices affects those who can least afford to absorb it.
8. Mounting Threats to Pollinators
Industrial-scale crop production is largely inhospitable to bees and butterflies. Destruction of prairie and other biodiverse habitats in favor on endless fields of corn and soy leave pollinators with nothing to eat. Spraying those fields with pesticides makes them toxic. No wonder bee and monarch butterfly populations have been in such steep decline. The increased crop production following the ethanol mandate has occurred in states that are crucial for both commercial honey bees and are in the central monarch flyway, making it even harder for these populations to rebound.
9. More Political Gridlock
As if Washington wasn’t already dysfunctional enough, the ethanol mandate has been used by politicians on both sides of the issue to gum up the works and get favors they want. Earlier this year, corn-state Senators would not guarantee their votes in favor of a bill to repeal regulations around methane emissions on public lands unless they were granted a vetting of their bill to expand ethanol use even further, and they held up a nominee to the EPA because they were unhappy with how the agency was handling the mandate. Currently, oil-state Senators are holding up a nominee to the Agriculture Department to protest the high cost of complying with the law. From the start, this policy has been a political headache that can’t seem to find a cure. Yet a remedy to the law’s ills does exist. Members of Congress need to come together and focus on these smart solutions that work for the environment, consumers, and family farmers.
10. Less Need for Biofuels (Ok, this one I’m happy about…)
To end on a positive note, we have very different needs for our fuel supply than we did when the law was passed 10 years ago. At that time, oil prices and gasoline demand were surging. Today, oil prices have been on a sustained low, and the U.S. has even begun exporting oil. Thanks to stricter fuel economy standards and the growing popularity of hybrid and electric cars, fuel consumption is actually on a downward trajectory. With this in mind, maybe it would be better for Congress to focus on facilitating the transition to electrified transportation while developing the best biofuels for aviation and long shipping.