When ex-President George W. Bush signed an expansion of The Renewable Fuel Standard program into law, requiring oil companies to add billions of gallons of the biofuel ethanol to their gasoline each year, he predicted that it would make America “stronger, cleaner and more secure.”
Fast forward six years and the expansion has proven to be a failure, with wide-ranging environmental, economic, and social effects that have only served to make the situaton worse. Starting as a lofty idea that sounded great on paper, the RFS is the poster child of good intentions gone horribly wrong.
Guided by the siren’s song of subsidies, the ensuing ag race to find new tracts in order to plant taxpayer-funded corn resulted in millions of acres of conservation land wiped out, increased pollution of water supplies and a destruction of natural habitats. During the land grab, huge amounts of C02 were released into the atmosphere unnecessarily, while billions of pounds of fertilizer were used, a sizable amount of which has leaked into various water sources. The Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone (an area which can no longer support life) also increased in size during this time.
Although enacted by Bush, much of the damage has occurred on President Obama’s watch, consequently worrying many of those who believed he would be the leader to take his environment stewardship seriously. His 2008 energy plan alleviated some concern, but his promises did not quite match the execution when deciding to extend the mandate.
Fortunately, our chief executive seems to have finally gotten the message with the recent introduction of new proposed biofuel standards.
In these new guidelines, the EPA wants to reduce the amount of biofuel required to be blended into gasoline down to 15.2 billion gallons, a 14% drop from what Congress laid out in the 2007 expansion.
Current biofuels, while interesting in theory, simply come with too many caveats to be considered a viable choice. First, natural forests and grasslands pull more carbon out of the atmosphere than cropland. So naturally, the more land that’s converted into agriculture to grow biofuel feedstocks, the more the climate advantage of those biofuels decreases. Add the standard carbon emissions brought about by this agricultural production and the environmental advantage plummets further.
The long-term problem for biofuels is the emission issue, but there is a short/medium-term conflict that is much more glaring: Food prices. With the vast majority of biofuel manufactured from corn and soybeans, both of which are vital human food sources, the current government policy is also serving to drive up food prices, leading to greater food insecurity across the globe.
The West is seeing the price spikes (corn prices have doubled since 2011), consequently lowering spending power, along with the ability to save. While this is a relatively significatnt economic concern in first-world economies, biofuel policy has absolutely wreaked havoc on those who can least afford high food prices: the world’s poor. Artificially inflating food costs for a less-than efficient program is not just a monetary folly, it becomes a damaging human rights issue.
The question is, how can you support a program that uses much-needed food stocks to produce net negative results in a time when current population growth is at unsustainable levels? Maybe America wanted to create a solution to their personal energy problems, but without thinking of how this may affect the broader human ecosystem, the decision to mandate ethanol was short-sighted at best, and a complete failure at worst.
The high prices not only keep socio-economic barriers in place for the poverty-stricken, they also lead to a vicious cycle that was mentioned above: environmental degradation. Biofuel companies and commercial farmers will go as far as regulations will let them when searching for profit. This leads to the filling in of wetlands, the cutting down of trees, the loss of carbon sinks, and the runoff of hazardous materials downstream. In fact, since 2008, more than 5 million acres of land set aside for conservation (the size of Yellowstone, Everglades and Yosemite combined) have vanished.
The promise of biofuels simply do not hold up after looking at the raw data. Even with the straightforward evidence proving ethanol ineffective, powerful agribusiness and its lobbyist are none too happy about the decision. But considering that American farmers are already the welfare beneficiaries of ridiculous subsidies not even related to biofuels, they have very little to argue about.
When it comes down to it, it seems misguided to create competing subsidies to undo the damage done by our already generous subsidies for gasoline and driving. I am sure it is hard not to throw your Washington lobbyist buddies a bone by offering tax breaks for their industry of choice, but this culture of corporate welfare needs to change.
Rather than adding more subsidies, which esssentially patches wounds that will sooner or later become infected, the proper remedy is reducing the tax breaks we have for oil companies, raising taxes on gas consumption, and shifting our transportation infrastructure to one where mass transit, biking and walking are able to thrive.
More efficient gasoline will not save us. Only we can save ourselves, but we have to be honest about the situation and take pragmatic steps which are not aligned with shadowy interests, weak science, and backdoor deals.
Even with the current ethanol experiment proving itself to be ill-advised, all is not completely lost for biofuels. Our focus on ethanol since 2007 has only increased our understanding, hopefully acting as a catalyst for future technological gains.
If scientists can create an energy source produced from feedstocks that do not compete with food supplies, while keeping overall carbon pollution at low levels, then we could see a strong renaissance in this area. Biofuels do have a great deal of potential, but only when our technology can implement such energy in a truly effective and sustainable way.