Time to put a cap on ethanol to benefit both people and our environment

By Ron O Connor | May 28, 2014

A coalition of citizens and business leaders from across the country representing grocers, anti-hunger advocates, social workers, small business owners, engine manufacturers, environmental groups, cattle ranchers, poultry producers, dairy farmers and convenience store owners met at our nation’s capital recently to voice concern over a federal energy policy that is wreaking havoc on our environment -- and also our wallets, our engines and a large swath of our American industries.

That policy is the nation’s Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) -- the requirement to blend a specific and increasing percentage of biofuels such as ethanol into our petroleum-based fuels.

Sadly, our current federal RFS - biofuels policy is dealing a walloping blow to our environment, among other unintended consequences. The RFS, while well-intentioned at the time of its inception, is resulting in the plowing under of wide swaths of conservation land, the polluting of our waterways and an increase in air pollutants -- all for a fuel that hardly deserves the title “renewable.”

When the RFS was aggressively expanded in 2007, the policy was imagined as a way to reduce our dependence on foreign oil while improving our environment with the introduction of first-generation biofuels -- most notably in the form of corn-based ethanol -- followed by the swift transition to truly advanced renewable fuels.

Unfortunately, that transition to other fuels never came and ethanol continues to meet more than 80 percent of the mandate.

To meet the excessive ethanol targets of the RFS, more and more land has been turned over to growing corn for fuel — not food. According to an analysis from the Environmental Working Group, more than 23 million acres of marginal lands – an area the size of Indiana – has been cleared since 2008 to plant crops, with corn accounting for the largest share of this conversion. These marginal lands are eroding, creating polluted streams and rivers.

As a comparison, in the 16 years prior to the RFS, corn acreage rose by just 6 percent. However, in the seven years since the mandate’s enactment, land devoted to corn spiked by 22 percent --- nearly a four-fold jump.

The increased corn production has come at the expense of conservation lands and grasslands. Sadly, farmland retired in the Conservation Reserve program is at an all-time low, with much of that land having been converted to corn.

Across its lifecycle, corn ethanol is not helping to lower greenhouse gas emissions. An Environmental Protection Agency analysis showed that lifecycle emissions from corn ethanol in 2012 were higher than from gasoline – and will be for years to come.

Likewise, the National Academy of Sciences found no evidence that corn ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions and may actually increase them, along with boosting air pollutants that threaten human health such as particulate matter and ozone. The Academy also noted that increased corn production has damaged water quality and quantity by depleting aquifers and streams and contributing to oxygen-deprived “dead zones” lethal to marine life.

Mandate Now Irrelevant

What’s more frustrating is that declining gasoline consumption and stricter fuel efficiency standards have rendered the corn ethanol mandate irrelevant. The scientific community has debunked the myth of corn ethanol as a “green” fuel, causing virtually every environmental organization to renounce it.

That’s why when meeting with the Environmental Protection Agency, I pressed for a reduction of the 2014 ethanol blending requirement as previously proposed by the agency for some much-needed short-term respite.

But a year-to-year revision will do little to stave off the long-term environmental impacts of increased ethanol production. Fortunately, I was also able to meet with several members of our bi-state Congressional delegation, including Rep. Rodney Davis and Rep. Bill Enyart, calling on them to address this policy boondoggle to better protect our environment and our natural resources for the generations to come.

I encourage others to contact our leaders in Washington and encourage them to work together to put an end to the unintended negative consequences of the out-dated Renewable Fuel Standard.

Ron O’Connor of Belleville is a member of the board of directors at HeartLands Conservancy which works in partnership with landowners and community leaders to permanently protect the natural resources throughout Madison and St. Clair Counties and the Midwest.

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