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Obama’s Turkey of an Announcement on RFS This Week?
As President Obama travels to Paris next week to demonstrate his leadership on climate change for a United Nations conference, his administration is faced with an inconvenient policy announcement. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is required to announce the corn ethanol volumes mandated under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) for 2014, 2015, and 2016 by November 30.
Despite the president’s historic support for the program, the administration is not relying on biofuels as a way to address climate change in the U.S. proposal at the international conference. It would appear that President Obama and his administration are aware that ethanol is bad for the environment and that it does not reduce greenhouse gasses (GHGs). In fact, in the EPA’s recently-released Fall 2015 State of Regulatory Priorities, the agency projects the ethanol mandate will lack any environmental benefit, but could cost as much as $600 million per year.
President Obama is not the first to recognize that the RFS has not delivered on its low carbon promises. In fact, leading environmentalists pushing President Obama to enact sweeping policies to address climate change (Bill McKibben and Al Gore, for example) have clearly stated that the corn ethanol mandate was a colossal mistake.
What’s more, the Center for Regulatory Solutions (CRS) has examined the RFS’s harsh economic and environmental impacts in great detail in states from coast to coast, including California, the six New England states, and the corn-producing Midwestern states of Ohio, Indiana, and most recently Illinois.
What’s at Stake for EPA’s Announcement?
When EPA makes its announcement on how much corn ethanol should be forced into our nation’s fuel supply, many in the media will want to declare a winner or a loser. Regardless of EPA’s decision, the political impact is already clear: after 10 years of the RFS program, the corn ethanol mandate has fallen deeply and irreversibly out of favor.
In fact, the near universal consensus across the country today is that corn ethanol has turned into a special-interest program to nowhere. Leading academics, environmental groups, businesses and consumers oppose the failed mandate. Only Big Corn remains fighting for the RFS.
As a corn-state senator, President Obama supported the RFS. He voted for it as a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee member in 2005, continued to support the program during his tenure in the U.S. Senate, and promoted corn ethanol during the Democratic primary against then-Senator Clinton.
Now that President Obama sees climate change as the defining issue of his presidency, however, he must face the facts: the science clearly shows corn ethanol is an environmental loser. And while his administration is considering increasing the mandate at home, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a federal agency closely involved with the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, publicly conceded this year that ethanol produces far more GHGs than previously thought.
In short, support for the RFS mandate is wearing thin and no matter who is elected president in 2016, it’s clear that the pressure will continue to vastly reform, or repeal outright, the corn ethanol mandate.
Environmental Groups Weigh In Against Corn Ethanol
Missing from much of the media attention surrounding the corn ethanol debate is how unpopular the mandate is among environmental groups. As we learn more about corn ethanol’s damaging impacts on our soil, water, and air, environmental groups are speaking out:
- “When the renewable fuel standard was established, corn ethanol was touted as being cleaner than gasoline, but 10 years later we know it’s just the opposite,” said Emily Cassidy of the Environmental Working Group.
- Rob Kidd, conservation program manager for the Vermont chapter of the Sierra Club, said his organization does not support increased ethanol production. “The club opposes further deployment of corn-based ethanol, based on its extremely dubious net carbon benefits and its unresolved direct and indirect environmental impacts,” Kidd said. “Corn-based ethanol requires intensive use of chemicals in corn production and offers little or no reduction in carbon emissions.”
- Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, said in response that his group would “need to scrutinize the most recent environmental and economic literature” to meaningfully weigh in on the debate. “In general, we’re concerned about how implementation of the RFS has affected the plowing of marginal lands along rivers, thereby affecting both soil health and water quality, and what the net impact of the RFS has been on transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions,” he said in a statement.
- The Natural Resources Defense Council recently suggested: “This program can’t simply be a taxpayer-subsidized corporate welfare scheme for the ethanol industry. The fact that corn-based ethanol is ‘renewable’ doesn’t automatically make it sustainable.”
Polling Shows Anemic, Dwindling Support for Corn Ethanol
As part of CRS’s ethanol analysis, public opinion research was conducted to gauge voters’ stance on the RFS policy in Ohio, Vermont, Indiana, Northern California, and Illinois. This research yielded some interesting results:
- A plurality of voters in Ohio, 45 percent, rejected the RFS (44% approved), which is remarkable since Ohio is the nation’s 8th largest corn producing state. After learning more about the RFS program, 62% were less likely to support it.
- Vermont voters overwhelmingly oppose the RFS program, with only 27 percent holding a favorable opinion of the program and 67 percent outright opposing the RFS.
- After learning of the findings of several recent government and academic studies on ethanol’s environmental impact, voters in all five states abandoned their support of the policy en masse, in some cases rejecting ethanol mandates by a margin of nine to one.
RFS’s Economic Impact – Picking Winners and Losers
CRS’s economic analysis found that the RFS is costing Americans from coast-to-coast billions of dollars every year in higher fuel costs. This “ethanol tax” transfers wealth out of states like California, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire and funnels it into a select few corn-producing Midwestern states. But this hefty tax that consumers are forced to shoulder does not broadly benefit Midwesterners. Rather, it’s hoarded by a very small segment of their economy – big corn farmers and ethanol producers.
In fact, CRS found that the corn ethanol mandate actually hurts most farmers by increasing the price of corn, which is a major component of the feed for their livestock. The problem has become so pernicious that farmers are increasingly speaking out against the RFS. In a recent interview with CRS, the Indiana State Poultry Association (ISPA) said:
“[ISPA] strongly believes that it is time for Congress to reexamine the corn-based ethanol mandate of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). The only beneficiaries thus far in this decade long program have been the corn ethanol industry, at a significant cost to the rest of us…The RFS is costing taxpayers billions of dollars, yet it has had no positive returns.”
What Comes Next
Regardless of what the Obama administration announces on or before the November 30 deadline, the tides have turned against the failed corn ethanol mandate and its days are numbered.
Scientists are sounding the alarm that the nation’s large-scale shift to producing corn is contributing heavily to soil degradation and erosion, polluting our water supply and natural ecosystems, and emitting more GHGs than conventional gasoline. Environmental groups are abandoning the corn ethanol as a climate change solution after a decade of broken promises. Small business owners lament higher costs for fuel and feed for livestock.
Given the significant record of scientific data proving corn ethanol’s countless failures, it’s understandable why this new polling suggests that even voters in Midwestern states are tired of paying an ethanol tax, which is devoid of benefits to anyone outside of the ethanol industry.