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The US biofuel mandate is good for farmers but it does not provide energy security or protect the environment.
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The US biofuel mandate is good for farmers but it does not provide energy security or protect the environment.

Corn kernels pour into a bin.


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. boost that target to 15% or more. 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 the corn ethanol portion of 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. Studies by scientists have shown that the program has failed to deliver on its promises. including meAccording to them, biofuels use has increased rather that decreased CO2 emissions.

Current law sets a goal to produce and use 36 billion gallons biofuels by 2022. This is in addition to the approximately 200 billion gallons motor fuels that U.S. vehicles burn each year. Drivers used a total of 3.4 billion gallons of biofuels in 2019. 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 time to either repeal or greatly reduce the RFS.

Farmers earn 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. generated over 300,000 jobsIn 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 replaces a small amount of petroleum, shifting some income from the oil industry to agribusiness. Nevertheless, biofuels’ contribution to U.S. energy security pales compared with gains from expanded domestic oil production through hydraulic fracturing – which of course brings its own severe environmental damages. Ethanol in fuel poses a serious environmental threat other risksAll inclusive damage to small engines higher emissions from fuel fumes.

Biofuel use has been a boon for consumers. varying, but overall 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 embedded in computer models that are used to evaluate fuels.

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

However, subsequent research has shown that biofuels are not actually carbon-neutral. Real-world changes in cropland carbon use can be corrected to correct this error. increased CO2 emissions.

One important factor is the fact that biofuels can increase land-use changes. Additional farmland is required to compensate for harvests that are not used to feed livestock or humans. This is what it means forests are cut down prairies are plowed up To carve new acres for crop production, it triggers very large CO2 emissions.

Corn kernels pour into a bin.

About 40% of corn grown in the U.S. can be used to make ethanol.
Shuli Hallak/Getty Images

In addition to being harmful to the environment, expanding farmland for biofuel production can also be detrimental to the environment. Studies have shown that it has. reduced the abundance and diversity of plants and animals worldwide. It has also increased other adverse effects of industrial agriculture in the United States, such as nutrient runoff and water pollution.

Failure of cellulosic alcohol

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 becoming commercially viable.

Almost 15 Years later, despite the federal mandate and billions of dollar in federal support, cellulosic ethanol has flopped. Recently, the total production of liquid cellulosic fuels has hovered at around 10 million gallons per year – 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.

Man in a field of tall grass.

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

Environmentally, I see cellulosic failures as a relief. If the technology is successful, I believe it will likely lead to a more aggressive 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. Petroleum refiners still invest in this risk. bio-based diesel productionProducers modify corn ethanol facilities produce biojet fuel.

Ripple effects on Indigenous peoples and lands

Today, the majority of biofuels are made with crops like soybeans and corn that are also used for animal feed and food. The global markets for major commodity crops have close links, which means that biofuel production is driven by an increase in demand.

This price pressure amplifies deforestation 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.

Researchers have discovered that biofuel production can have adverse effects on land use, crop prices, and climate. much smaller than previously estimated. Nonetheless, uncertainties surrounding land use changeThe net effects of CO2 emissions have enormous net effects. Complex modeling of biofuel-related commodity market and land use is difficult to verify as it extrapolates global effects into the future.

Rather than biofuels, a much better way to address transportation-related CO2 emissions is through improving efficiency, particularly raising gasoline vehicle fuel economyElectric cars are still in development.

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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. Some commentators have noted that the biofuel mandate has evolved into another. 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.


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