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OPED: Ethanol mandate must be reformed

David A. Imgrund
National Wildlife Federation

The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. The road to a slowly unfolding environmental disaster was similarly paved, it seems.

David A. Imgrund

The Renewable Fuel Standard was a good idea that was poorly implemented, and that has created unintended devastating environmental effects. What should have been a linchpin of a sound energy policy has become a boondoggle.

The law passed in 2005 had environmental safeguards included. Sadly, the language safeguarding the environment has not been enforced, or has been improperly interpreted. The original intent was to find alternative fuels, with the emphasis on new technologies that would enable ethanol production from cellulosic sources such as switchgrass, to be the key components for ethanol.

The 2008 recession resulted in a drying up of funding for such research. The ethanol mandate had taken a turn towards row crops, primarily corn, as the source of the ethanol.

Predictably, corn prices rose. Predictably, farmers planted more corn to cash in. Although the law contained language to protect against a headlong rush to put grasslands into production, the EPA chose to not enforce it. Under pressure from the ethanol industry, the EPA developed an aggregate compliance approach, an approach that overlooked an important issue, the loss of cropland to development.

Consequently, the EPA systematically obscures the amount of new land brought into production.

As a result, 7.3 million acres were converted into cropland between 2008 and 2012. Not all of these lands cleared were prime agricultural land; marginal areas were cleared. These marginal areas are often prime habitat for wildlife; waterfowl in the prairie pothole region, bees and other pollinators, and grassland nesting birds, such as the prairie chicken and pheasants. The land conversion driven by the ethanol mandate has had negative effects on wildlife.

The negative effects do not stop there; row crops such as corn carry other environmental costs. Increasingly, water supplies are being adversely affected from agricultural run-off. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and the algal bloom that shut down Toledo, Ohio’s drinking water for three days in August 2014, are attributable to nitrogen and phosphorous loads from fertilizers used in agriculture. The land conversion in arid regions is putting added stress on aquifers as irrigation is required to grow corn in these areas.

With a staggering 40 percent of U.S. corn production going to ethanol production, the results can be felt by all. Corn prices are driven by many factors, but the artificial demand created by the ethanol mandate is certainly one driver. Essentially, everyone who uses corn is competing with refiners, and we all pay the price whenever feed corn prices rise for the production of livestock or prices rise on consumer products made with corn. Ethanol is here to stay, it has a continuing role in our energy policy, but the ethanol mandate needs to be reformed.

The promise of the Renewable Fuel Standard has fallen short of its initial goal to create the next generation of cellulosic biofuels (made from grasses, trees and waste) and has created negative environmental outcomes. What needs to be done?

A good place to start would be to eliminate ethanol produced from corn kernels from qualifying for the advanced biofuels pool and to greatly reduce the corn ethanol mandate. Limits should be placed on biodiesel produced from virgin vegetable oils, and biodiesel should not be counted toward the conventional biofuels pool.

Cellulosic and advanced biofuels should be incentivized appropriately, fostering development and production of modern biofuels. Farmers should likewise be adequately incentivized to remove marginal cropland from production and put it into conservation reserve programs. The funding for these programs should be linked to the Renewable Fuel Standard.

The future conversion of native habitat to cropland should be prohibited, and the standard’s disallowance of fuels produced on lands cleared after 2007, as verified at the field scale, rather than the aggregate, should be enforced.

Now is the time to fix this problem. Contact Sen. Bob Casey, Sen. Pat Toomey and Rep. Scott Perry and tell them to fix the broken Renewable Fuel Standard.

— David A. Imgrund is an outreach consultant for the National Wildlife Federation.