If you’ve pumped gasoline at an American gas station in the past decade, you’ve put biofuel in your tank. Thank you to the federal government Renewable Fuels Standard, or RFS, almost all gasoline sold nationally must contain 10 percent ethanol – a fuel made from plant sources, primarily corn.
With the recent rise in prices at the pump, biofuel lobbies are pushing for increase this goal to 15% or more. At the same time, some policy makers are calling for reforms. For example, a bipartisan group of US senators introduced a bill that eliminate the corn ethanol portion of the mandate.
Adopted in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the RFS promised to improve energy security, reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and increase incomes in rural America. The program has certainly increased the profits of parts of the agriculture industry, but in my opinion it has not delivered on its other promises. Indeed, the studies of some scientists, including me, find that the use of biofuels has increased rather than decreased CO2 emissions to date.
Current law sets a goal of producing and using 36 billion gallons of biofuel by 2022 as part of the roughly 200 billion gallons of fuel that U.S. motor vehicles burn each year. In 2019, drivers were using only 20 billion gallons renewable fuels each year – primarily corn ethanol and soybean biodiesel. Consumption decreased in 2020 due to the pandemic, as did most energy consumption. Although the 2021 tally is not yet complete, the program remains far from its goal of 36 billion gallons. I think the time has come to repeal the RFS, or at least significantly reduce it.
Higher profits for many farmers
The most obvious success of the RFS has been to increase the income of corn and soybean producers and associated farm businesses. He also built a large national biofuel industry.
The Renewable Fuels Association, a professional group in the biofuels industry, believes that the RFS has generated more than 300,000 jobs in recent years. Two-thirds of those jobs are in the major ethanol-producing states: Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana, and South Dakota. Given Iowa’s key role in the presidential primaries, most politicians with national ambitions deem it prudent to adopt biofuels.
The RFS displaces a modest amount of oil, shifting part of the revenue from the oil industry to agribusiness. Nonetheless, the contribution of biofuels to US energy security is paltry compared to the gains from increase in national oil production through hydraulic fracturing – which, of course, leads to serious environmental damage. And the use of ethanol in the fuel poses other risks, including damage to small engines and higher fuel vapor emissions.
For consumers, the use of biofuels has had a variable effect, but overall weak on prices at the pump. Renewable fuels policy has little influence in the global oil market, where the effects of a dime mandate on biofuels fall short of the volatility of oil on the dollar scale.
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 raw materials like corn and soybeans absorb as they grow. This assumption is encoded in computer models used to evaluate fuels.
Prior to the adoption of RFS, such modeling revealed modest CO2 reductions for corn ethanol and soybean biodiesel. He promised greater benefits of cellulosic ethanol – a more advanced type of biofuel that would be made from non-food sources, such as crop residues and energy crops like willow and switchgrass.
But later research showed that biofuels are not really carbon neutral. Correcting this error by assessing real-world changes in carbon uptake from cropland reveals that the use of biofuels has increased CO2 emissions.
An important factor is that the manufacture of biofuels amplifies land use change. As crops are diverted from feeding humans and livestock to produce fuel, additional farmland is needed to compensate. That means forests are cut down and the meadows are plowed to carve out new hectares for agricultural production, triggering very significant CO2 emissions.
Extending agricultural land for biofuel production is also bad for the environment in other ways. Studies show that he has reduces the abundance and diversity of plants and animals in the world. In the United States, it amplified other negative impacts of industrial agriculture, such as nutrient runoff and water pollution.
The failure of cellulosic ethanol
When Congress expanded the mandate for biofuels in 2007, a key factor that prompted lawmakers in states outside the Midwest to support it was the belief that a next generation of cellulosic ethanol would produce further environmental, energy and economic benefits. more important. Proponents of biofuels have claimed that cellulosic fuels are on the verge of becoming commercially viable.
Almost 15 years later, despite the mandate and billions of dollars in federal aid, cellulosic ethanol collapsed. The total production of liquid cellulosic biofuels has recently hovered around 10 million gallons per year – a tiny fraction of the 16 billion gallons the RFS calls for production in 2022. The technical challenges have turned out to be more daunting than proponents claimed.
From an environmental standpoint, I see cellulose breakdown as a relief. If the technology was successful, I think it would likely trigger an even more aggressive global expansion of industrial agriculture – large-scale farms that only cultivate one or two crops and rely on highly mechanized methods with intensive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Some of these risks remain as oil refiners invest in biodiesel production and producers are modifying corn ethanol facilities to produce biofuel.
Ripple Effects on Indigenous Lands and Peoples
Today, the vast majority of biofuels are made from crops like corn and soybeans which are also used for food and feed. Global markets for major staple crops are closely linked, so increased demand for biofuel production is pushing up their prices globally.
This pressure on prices amplifies deforestation and land grabbing in places of Brazil To Thailand. The renewable fuels standard thus worsens displacement of indigenous communities, peatland destruction and similar damage along agricultural borders around the world, mainly in developing countries.
Some researchers have found that the detrimental effects of biofuel production on land use, crop prices and the climate are much smaller than expected. Nevertheless, the uncertainties surrounding land-use change and the net effects on CO2 emissions are enormous. The complex modeling of biofuel commodity markets and land use is impossible to verify, as it extrapolates the effects across the world and into the future.
Rather than biofuels, a much better way to tackle transport-related CO2 emissions is to improve efficiency, especially increase the fuel economy of gasoline vehicles while electric cars continue to advance.
A stool with two weak legs
What to conclude from 16 years of RFS? In my opinion, two of its three political strands are now quite unstable: its energy security logic is largely questionable, and its climate logic has turned out to be false.
Nonetheless, major agricultural interests strongly support the program and may be able to support it indefinitely. Indeed, as some commentators have observed, the biofuels mandate has become another right to agro-industry. Taxpayers would likely have to pay dearly in a deal to repeal the RFS. For the good of the planet, that would be a worthwhile cost.