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The US Biofuel Mandat Helps Farmers, But Harms the Environment

The US Biofuel Mandat Helps Farmers, But Harms the Environment

Surplus Corn Pile
Surplus Corn Pile

Surplus corn piled outside a farmer’s co-op storage facility in Paoli, Colorado.

If you’ve pumped gas at a U.S. service station over the past decade, you’ve put biofuel in your tank. The federal Renewable Fuel Standard, or RFS, almost all gasoline sold nationwide is required to contain 10% ethanol – a fuel made from plant sources, mainly corn.

Biofuel lobbyists are pressing to address the recent rise of pump prices. Increase the target to 15% or higher. Some policymakers call for reforms at the same time. A bipartisan group of U.S. Senators has introduced a bill to address this issue. Eliminate corn ethanol from the mandate.

In response to the Sept. 11 2001 attacks, the RFS was established. It promised to improve energy security, reduce carbon dioxide emission, and increase income in rural America. While the program has made some gains in the agricultural sector, it has not fulfilled its other promises. Some scientists have even done studies to confirm this. Includes meAccording to the report, biofuels use has increased rather that decreased CO2 emissions.

Current law sets a goal of producing and using 36 million gallons worth of biofuels each year by 2022. This figure is part of the approximately 200 billion gallons that motor vehicles in the United States burn each year. In 2019, drivers used approximately 4.2 billion gallons of biofuels. Only 20 billion gallons of renewable fuels yearly – mainly corn ethanol and soybean biodiesel. The pandemic caused a decline in energy consumption and a decrease in usage in 2020. The 2021 tally is still not complete but the program is still far from the 36 billion-gallon goal. I believe it is now the right time to end the RFS or at least to greatly reduce its size.

Many farmers enjoy higher profits

The RFS’s clearest success has been boosting income for corn and soybean farmers and related agricultural firms. It has also created a significant domestic biofuel market.

The Renewable Fuels AssociationThe RFS is estimated to have been worth approximately $2.5 trillion according to the trade group for biofuels. More than 300,000 new jobs were createdIn recent years. These jobs are located in the top ethanol-producing countries: Iowa, Nebraska and Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana, South Dakota, Minnesota, Indiana, and South Dakota. Given Iowa’s key role in presidential primaries, most politicians with national ambitions find it prudent to embrace biofuels.

The RFS reduces the use of some petroleum and shifts some income away from oil to agribusiness. Nevertheless, biofuels’ contribution to U.S. energy security pales compared with gains from Hydraulic fracturing can increase domestic oil production – which of course brings its own severe environmental damages. Ethanol in fuel poses a serious environmental threat Other risksIncludes Small engines are at riskAnd Higher emissions from fuel fumes.

Biofuels have had a positive impact on consumers. Variable, but generally small, effectPump prices. Renewable fuel policy has little leverage in the world oil market, where the biofuel mandate’s penny-level effects are no match for oil’s dollar-scale volatility.

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 fully offset by the CO2 that feedstocks like corn and soybeans absorb as they grow. This assumption is encoded in computer models that help to evaluate fuels.

These models showed modest CO2 reductions leading up to the passage of RFS. Corn ethanolAnd soybean biodiesel. It promised more benefits Cellulosic alcohol – a more advanced type of biofuel that would be made from nonfood sources, such as crop residues and energy crops like willow and switchgrass.

But, subsequent research has shown the opposite. Biofuels can’t be carbon-neutral.. This mistake can be corrected by analyzing real-world changes of cropland carbon uptake to show that biofuels have been a success. Increased CO2 emissions.

One major factor is that biofuels increase land-use change. Additional farmland is required to compensate for harvests that are not used to feed livestock or humans. This means that: Forests are reducedAnd The prairies are plowed to create new land for crop production, triggering large CO2 releases.

Harvesting Corn

About 40% of the corn grown in the United States is used for ethanol production.

In addition to being harmful to the environment, expanding farmland for biofuel production can also be detrimental to the environment. Studies show that it has. Globally, there has been a decrease in the diversity and abundance of animals and plants.. It has also increased other adverse effects of industrial agriculture in the United States, such as Water pollution and nutrient runoff.

Cellulosic ethanol fails to work

The belief that a new generation of cellulosicethanol would bring greater economic, environmental, and energy benefits was a key reason Congress expanded the biofuel mandate. Biofuel supporters claimed that cellulosic fuels are more sustainable than conventional fossil fuels. Close to commercially viable.

Almost 15 Years later, despite the federal mandate and billions of dollar in federal support, Cellulosic alcohol has failed. Recently, the total production of liquid cellulosic fuels has hovered at around 10 million gallons annually – a tiny fraction of the 16 billion gallons that the RFS calls for producing in 2022. Proponents claimed that technical challenges were more difficult than they believed.

Growing Switchgrass for Biofuel

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It is difficult to make cellulosic alcohol from plants like switchgrass, and it remains prohibitively expensive despite large subsidies.

I see the cellulosic fail as a relief from environmental concerns. If the technology succeeds, I believe it could unleash an even greater global expansion. industrial agriculture – large-scale farms that raise only one or two crops and rely on highly mechanized methods with intensive chemical fertilizer and pesticide use. These risks are still possible because petroleum refiners continue to invest in them. bio-based diesel productionProducers and processors modify corn-ethanol facilities produce biojet fuel.

Ripple effects for Indigenous peoples and lands

Biofuels made today largely from corn and soybeans, which are also used as food and animal feed. Global markets for major commodity crops have close links, so increasing demand for biofuel production drives up global prices.

This price pressure amplifies deforestationAnd land-grabbingAvailable in locations starting at BrazilTo Thailand. The Renewable Fuel Standard therefore aggraves displacement of Indigenous communities, Destruction of peatlandsSimilar harms are occurring along agricultural frontiers in the world, mainly in developing nations.

Some researchers found that biofuel production has adverse effects on land use and crop prices as well as climate. Much smaller than previously thought. Nevertheless, Uncertainties surrounding land use changesThe net effects of CO2 emissions have enormous net effects. It is difficult to verify the complex modeling of biofuel-related commodity and land markets, as it extrapolates the effects across the globe and into future.

Rather than biofuels, a much better way to address transportation-related CO2 emissions is through improving efficiency, particularly Increasing gasoline vehicle fuel efficiencyWhile electric cars continue to improve.

A stool with two legs that are weak

What can we draw from 16 years of RFS? Two of its three policy legs, as I see them, are now very wobbly. Its energy security rationale and climate rationale are both largely ineffective.

However, the program is supported by key agricultural interests and could be sustained indefinitely. As some commentators have pointed out, the biofuel mandate is now another mandate. Agribusiness entitlement. A deal to repeal RFS would probably require taxpayers to pay high prices. It would be a worthwhile cost for the good of the planet.

John DeCicco, Emeritus Research Professor, University of Michigan.

This article was published for the first time in The Conversation.The Conversation

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