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Encouraging development of new renewable fuels is a worthy goal. But corn ethanol is not new, and the bloated standard takes too big a bite of food.
Thursday, April 18, 2013
The federal Renewable Fuel Standard has enriched Midwest corn growers, but by the measures most Americans care about, it is failing.
In 2011, it diverted 5 billion bushels of corn from the nation’s food supply, raising the cost of feed for livestock producers and dairy farmers, pushing up consumer food prices and eroding hunger relief in the U.S. and around the world.
Hopes that the mandate would be a boon for the environment proved wrong as wetlands and wildlife habitat were put into production by farmers growing corn for a guaranteed market.
So Rep. Bob Goodlatte is onto something with bills he introduced last week either to eliminate the Renewable Fuel Standard or, barring that, to eliminate corn-based ethanol from the mandate and cap the amount that can be blended with gasoline at 10 percent. That, by the way, is the limit that is compatible with most cars and with small engines.
Clearly, a well-intended congressional effort in 2005 to encourage development of biofuels as an alternative to nonrenewable fossil fuels has grown wildly out of control. The seeds for that were planted in 2007, when China and India drove up global demand for oil, causing prices to soar and reminding the U.S. of its economic vulnerability as a super consumer.
Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act that year. John DeCicco, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Energy Institute, explained on The Hill’s Congress blog last month that the new law “vastly expanded RFS, giving biofuel producers and financiers a massive guaranteed market that more than quadrupled the original target.” The new goal was 15 billion gallons in 2012, and 36 billion by 2022.
Goodlatte’s bill to overhaul the standard would leave cellulosic ethanol, made from non-food crops and waste, and advanced biofuels to fill a reduced government mandate: 21 billion gallons by 2022. Or, if this level cannot be met by producers, the mandate would be capped at current production levels.
The overhaul has bipartisan support. By DeCicco’s reckoning, though, it would not go far enough.
He suggests a return to the original 7.5 billion gallon goal. “Doing so still provides a guaranteed market for truly competitive advances in biofuels while making more of our harvest available for food and feed.”
Goodlatte would prefer ridding the country of the Renewable Fuel Standard altogether, but doesn’t think the bill will pass. He philosophically opposes government interference in the marketplace. Yet support for developing new fuels — corn ethanol is not one — would be a wise investment in the country’s future.
The size of the investment can be negotiated. But record-breaking drought prompted another of the country’s energy epiphanies. The fuel mandate diverted 42 percent of a devastated corn crop into gas tanks and had an impact on food supplies worldwide. Congress should act.
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