Teams of lawmakers are working hard on bills to cut corn-based ethanol out of the country’s biofuel mandate entirely, according to National Journal.
It’s the latest twist in America’s fraught relationship with biofuels, which started in 2005 when Congress first mandated that a certain amount of biofuel be mixed into the country’s fuel supply. The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) was then expanded in 2007, with separate requirements for standard biofuel on the one hand and cellulosic and advanced biofuels on the other. The latter are produced from non-food products like cornstalks, agricultural waste, and timber industry cuttings.
The RFS originally called for 100 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol in 2010, 250 million in 2011, and 500 million in 2012. Instead, the cellulosic industry failed to get off the ground. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was forced to revise the mandate down to 6.5 million in 2010, and all the way down to zero in 2012.
The cellulosic mandate has started to slowly creep back up, and 2014 may be the year when domestic production of cellulosic ethanol finally takes off.
But then last month EPA did something else for the first time: it cut down the 2014 mandate for standard biofuel, produced mainly from corn. And now Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) have teamed up on legislation that would eliminate the standard biofuel mandate entirely. The mandates for cellulosic biofuel, biodiesel, and advanced biofuels (the previous two fall under this broader category) would remain.
Coburn and Feinstein’s bill is co-sponsored by eight other senators from both parties, and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) are working up a separate bill that would accomplish the same thing. Efforts to reform the RFS are also underway in the House.
The lawmakers cite rising food prices, environmental damage, and the “blend wall” — the amount of ethanol most car engines can take in their fuel mix — as justification for the bill.
And they have at least a partial case.
Use of corn for ethanol exploded after 2006, but overall corn production continued along its previous trend. Not surprisingly, the price of corn also spiked around the same time. As the biofuel industry points out, other factors also hit around the same time, like the midwestern drought and rising oil prices. But with that kind of demand growth from an entirely new sector, without any attendant fall-off in all the other ways we use corn — like food — it’s hard to see how the arrival of the RFS didn’t have some effect on food prices. There’s also plenty of evidence that U.S. and European biofuel mandates are driving up food insecurity globally.
It’s also well established that cropland pulls less carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than forest or grassland. Between encouraging the spread of farm land and the carbon emissions that are part and parcel of farming, studies have found that corn-based ethanol negates most and perhaps all of its climate advantage. The biofuel industry points to other studies that find significantly less carbon emissions from corn-based ethanol than from fossil fuels, even accounting for the products entire life cycle. But there’s plenty of circumstantial evidence the RFS is driving land use change.
Meanwhile, the promise of cellulosic ethanol and other advanced biofuels — and the case for cleaving them off from corn-based ethanol — is that they’re made from agricultural waste and leftovers from the timber and food industries, for example. That means they don’t compete with the food supply, and they don’t encourage any agriculture that wouldn’t happen anyway.
As for the blend wall, it’s a trickier matter. Evidence that it’s a real issue is mixed, and its legitimacy isn’t helped by the fact that it’s the oil industry pushing the argument. More fundamentally, the blend wall functions as an argument against any form of biofuel, not just corn-based. The blend wall was widely cited by EPA in its reasoning for cutting the RFS requirements for 2014 — cuts which not only lowered the mandate for corn-based biofuel, but for cellulosic and advanced biofuels as well. Citing the blend wall, in other words, doesn’t work as an argument for distinguishing corn-based ethanol from other forms of biofuel.
For its part, the biofuel industry sees any effort to cut the RFS as a sop to the oil industry. It also insists the investments and infrastructure for corn-based ethanol and advanced biofuels are so entangled that lawmakers can’t kill one without also killing the other.
Legislative efforts to adjust the RFS do not have much time to do much before the end of the year so any action would likely proceed in 2014.