A decade ago Congress created the current federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) to jump-start the alternative fuels marketplace. The goal was to spur the production of billions of gallons of cellulosic biofuels derived from perennial grasses, agricultural residues, and other non-food sources. The hope was that blending these biofuels with U.S. gasoline and diesel would significantly reduce harmful emissions and improve U.S. energy security. However, more than 10 years later, it is clear the RFS is hopelessly ineffective.
My organization, Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS), has opposed the Renewable Fuel Standard since the beginning. The RFS distorts markets by picking winners relying on a system of direct and indirect subsidies primarily to corn ethanol. For nearly four decades, corn ethanol has received billions of dollars in government subsidies.
Instead of creating an on-ramp for non-food-based biofuels, the RFS did little more than provide further support to already heavily subsidized corn ethanol and more recently, soy biodiesel. That’s right, the large majority of the RFS mandate has been filled with first-generation, food-based biofuels — the opposite of its purported goals.
These first-generation biofuels may actually increase instead of decrease greenhouse gas emissions. A recent, congressionally mandated report on the RFS concluded that the expansion of corn and soybeans onto grasslands and wetlands since 2007 has also harmed our wildlife, land, air, water and soil. These negative impacts increase costs for consumers, utilities, fishermen, the poor and taxpayers.
Without action to reform the RFS, the situation will continue to get worse. Next year’s cellulosic biofuel volume is expected to meet just 4 percent of the 8.5-billion-gallon 2019 cellulosic biofuel mandate, according to the newly released renewable volume obligations while corn ethanol volumes are maxed out at 15 billion gallons.
My organization has worked alongside a broad range of stakeholders, including consumer, environmental, agricultural, food and commodities, motorcycle, fishing and boating interests to highlight the negative consequences and costs of corn ethanol subsidies since their inception four decades ago. The detrimental impacts of skyrocketing corn ethanol production since 2007 include higher food and feed costs as it is diverted to fuel, damage to small engines from higher ethanol use, and higher fuel costs.
On top of the dire impacts from corn ethanol, using palm oil instead of soybean oil for food to make up for the losses created by diverting soybean oil to biofuels could “in turn increase the lifecycle GHG emissions associated with these incremental volumes,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency. EPA elaborates: “There would also likely be market disruptions and increased burden associated with shifting feedstocks among the wide range of companies that are relying on them today…”
For these and many other reasons, TCS has joined a growing chorus of diverse interests calling on Congress to address the broken RFS mandate and stop picking winners and losers. While the corn ethanol industry promised that decades of subsidies (tax credits, farm bill bioenergy subsidies, ethanol blender pump subsidies, etc.) would lead to better biofuels, corn ethanol has instead proven to be an expensive bridge to nowhere. The sooner Congress realizes the RFS is a dead end, the better for all of us.
• Ryan Alexander is president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog that has served as an independent voice for the American taxpayer since 1995. Its mission is to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent responsibly and that government operates within its means. Please follow @taxpayers.