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Monday, January 24, 2022

US biofuels mandate helps farmers, but does little for energy security and harms the environment

If you’ve pumped gas at a US service station in the past decade, you’ve put biofuel in your tank. Thanks to the federal Renewable Fuel Standard, or RFS, nearly all gasoline sold nationwide is required to contain 10% ethanol—a fuel made from plant sources, primarily corn.

With the recent increase in pump prices, the biofuel lobbies are pushing to raise that target to 15% or more. At the same time, some policymakers are demanding reforms. For example, a bipartisan group of US senators has introduced a bill that would eliminate the corn ethanol portion of the mandate.

Enacted in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the RFS promised to increase energy security, cut carbon dioxide emissions, and increase income for rural America. The program has certainly increased profits for some segments of the agriculture industry, but in my view it has failed to deliver on its other promises. In fact, studies by some scientists, including me, show that the use of biofuels to date has increased rather than decreased in CO2 emissions.

Current legislation sets a goal of producing and using 36 billion gallons of biofuel by 2022 as part of the approximately 200 billion gallons of motor fuel that American motor vehicles burn each year. As of 2019, drivers were using only 20 billion gallons of renewable fuels annually – primarily corn ethanol and soybean biodiesel. The pandemic caused a drop in usage in 2020, as did most of the energy used. Although the 2021 tally is yet to be met, the program is far from its 36 billion gallon target. I believe it’s time to abort RFS, or at least revert it substantially.

Higher profits for many farmers

The apparent success of RFS is increasing income for corn and soybean farmers and associated agricultural firms. It has also created a large domestic biofuels industry.

The Renewable Fuels Federation, a trade group for the biofuels industry, estimates that RFS has created more than 300,000 jobs in recent years. Two-thirds of these jobs are in the top ethanol producing states: Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana and South Dakota. Given Iowa’s major role in the presidential election, most politicians with national ambitions find it prudent to adopt biofuels.

The RFS displaces a modest amount of petroleum, transferring some of the income from the oil industry and into the agribusiness. Still, the contribution of biofuels to US energy security pales in comparison to the benefits from expanded domestic oil production through hydraulic fracturing – which certainly brings serious environmental harm of its own. And the use of ethanol in fuels poses other risks, including damage to small engines and higher emissions from fuel fumes.

For consumers, the use of biofuels has had an individual, but overall, small effect on pump prices. Renewable fuel policy has little advantage in the world oil market, where the money-level effects of the biofuels mandate are no match for the dollar-scale volatility of oil.

Biofuels are not carbon-neutral

The idea that biofuels are good for the environment rests on the assumption that they are inherently carbon neutral – meaning that the CO2 emitted when biofuels are burned is completely offset by the CO2 that Feedstocks such as corn and soybeans thrive. This assumption is coded into the computer model used to evaluate the fuel.

Leading to the passage of the RFS, such modeling found modest CO2 reductions for corn ethanol and soybean biodiesel. It promised more benefits than cellulosic ethanol – a more advanced type of biofuel that would be made from non-food sources, such as crop residues and energy crops such as willow and switchgrass.

But later research has shown that biofuels are not actually carbon-neutral. Correcting this mistake by evaluating real-world changes in cropland carbon uptake shows that the use of biofuels has increased CO2 emissions.

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A big factor is that making biofuels increases land-use change. As the crop is removed from feeding humans and livestock to produce fuel, additional agricultural land is needed to compensate. This means forests are cut down and prairie is cultivated to create new acres for crop production, leading to huge CO2 releases.

About 40% of the corn produced in the US is used to make ethanol.
Shuli Halak/Getty Images

Expanding agricultural land for biofuel production is harmful to the environment in other ways as well. Studies show that it has reduced the abundance and diversity of plants and animals around the world. In the US, this has exacerbated other adverse effects of industrial agriculture, such as nutrient runoff and water pollution.

failure of cellulosic ethanol

When Congress expanded the biofuels mandate in 2007, a major factor that prompted legislators from states outside the Midwest to support it was the belief that the coming generation of cellulosic ethanol would be even more environmentally, energy efficient. and will generate economic benefits. Biofuel proponents claimed that cellulosic fuels were close to becoming commercially viable.

Nearly 15 years later, cellulosic ethanol has flopped, despite mandates and billions of dollars in federal support. Total production of liquid cellulosic biofuels has recently grown to about 10 million gallons per year – a tiny fraction of the 16 billion gallons that the RFS calls for production in 2022. The technical challenges have proven to be more difficult than those claimed.

Man in tall meadow.
Making cellulosic ethanol from plants like switchgrass is complex and not affordable despite huge subsidies.
Karen Kasmowski / Getty Images

Environmentally, I see cellulosic failure as a relief. If the technology were to succeed, I believe it would unleash an even more aggressive global expansion of industrial agriculture – large-scale farms that grow only one or two crops and intensive chemical fertilizer and pesticide use. With rely on highly mechanized methods. Some such risks remain as petroleum refiners invest in bio-based diesel production and manufacturers modify corn ethanol facilities to produce biojet fuel.

Ripple effect on land and indigenous people

Today most biofuels are made from crops such as corn and soybeans which are also used for food and animal feed. Global markets for major commodity crops are intertwined, so increasing demand for biofuel production drives up their prices globally.

This price pressure drives deforestation and land grabbing in locations from Brazil to Thailand. The renewable fuel standard thus increases the displacement of indigenous communities, destruction of peatlands and similar damages along agricultural borders, mainly in developing countries around the world.

Some researchers have found that the adverse effects of biofuel production on land use, crop prices and climate are much less than previously estimated. Nevertheless, the uncertainties surrounding land use change and the net effect on CO2 emissions remain enormous. It is impossible to verify the complex modeling of commodity markets and land use related to biofuels, because of its worldwide and future impacts.

Instead of biofuels, a better way to address transportation-related CO2 emissions is to improve efficiency, particularly by increasing gasoline vehicle fuel economy while electric cars continue to advance.

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two-legged stool

What can we conclude from RFS being 16? As I see it, two of its three policy phases now falter: its energy security argument is largely controversial, and its climate argument has been proven false.

Nevertheless, major agricultural interests strongly support the program and may be able to run it indefinitely. Indeed, as some commentators have observed, the biofuel mandate has become another agribusiness entitlement. Taxpayers may have to pay a high price in the deal to repeal RFS. For the sake of the planet, it would be a cost worth paying.

This article is republished from – The Conversation – Read the – original article.

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