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Fix the Broken Biofuels Mandate

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The following op-ed was published in The Hill on March 12, 2013.

Fix the broken biofuels mandate

By Scott Faber, Environmental Working Group

It’s time to face facts: the biofuels mandate Congress established in 2005 is creating too much bad biofuel and not enough good biofuel.

This year, that mandate requires American refiners to use 13.8 billion gallons of corn ethanol – more than they can actually blend into their gasoline.

By contrast, fuel makers are expected to generate only a little more than 5 million gallons of non-food-based biofuels that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Many doubt whether the industry can hit this target.

Once heralded as a “bridge fuel” to advanced biofuels, corn ethanol has turned out to be a bridge to -- more corn ethanol. 

That’s not just bad news for Americans worried about the greenhouse gas impact of the fuel they use. It’s also bad news for consumers worried about rising food prices. And it’s terrible news for the developing world, where corn ethanol has increased the cost of food imports by more than $6 billion in recent years. The U.S. Department of Agriculture warns that corn shortages – caused in part by the ethanol mandate – will drive up U.S, food prices by another 3 to 4 percent this year. 

Corn ethanol has been a costly disaster for farmers, food manufacturers, restaurants and other food retailers. What’s more, it is increasing the price of gas. When you factor in the inconvenient truth that corn ethanol delivers two-thirds of the energy content of gasoline, ethanol is actually more expensive than gas per mile driven, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

And if refiners find a way to blend even more corn ethanol into gasoline – as the renewable fuel mandate requires – the result will be growing expenses for engine repairs as well. That’s because 95 percent of cars and 100 percent of boats, lawnmowers, snowmobiles, chainsaws and other small engines aren’t designed to run on gasoline that contains more than 10 percent ethanol.

No wonder automakers have announced that fueling your car with higher than 10 percent ethanol blends will void warranties. The American Automobile Association warns consumers not to put E-15 in their cars. The Coast Guard has weighed in against using higher ethanol blends in boat engines. 

Despite all that, the mandate Congress enacted in 2005 and expanded in 2007 has put the nation on track to use a 40 percent gasoline-ethanol blend by 2022.


That would force manufacturers and retailers to retrofit nearly every engine and fuel pump in the U.S. so that they could handle a fuel that costs more and produces less energy. Just replacing every fuel system could cost small businesses as much as $60 billion.

But the expenses don’t stop there. 

Corn ethanol increases the cost of federal nutrition programs such as food stamps. One government study found that the renewable fuels mandate drove up the cost of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by nearly $1 billion a year. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. Truly advanced biofuels made from crop wastes and other feedstocks could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. More than 80 companies are working on developing clean biofuels. Some experts expect dozens of new facilities to open in the next few years.

If advanced biofuels technology comes on line, it will be a welcome bit of good news. So far, corn ethanol has been nothing but bad news for the environment. From 2008 to 2011, farmers plowed up more than 23 million acres of wetlands and grasslands – an area the size of Indiana – releasing more carbon into the atmosphere and slathering even more farm chemicals on their fields.

The renewable fuel mandate has done too little to produce fuels that would actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It’s time to reform the broken biofuels mandate to make more room for alternatives that are truly good for the environment and consumers. 

Faber is the vice president of Government Affairs at Environmental Working Group.

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