Trump and Clinton both wrong on ethanol
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump don’t agree on much, but they see eye-to-eye on the Renewable Fuel Standard. Too bad they’re both wrong.
The policy requires America’s gasoline supply be mixed with renewable fuels like corn-based ethanol. In their public addresses, both nominees continue to cite ethanol as key to breaking U.S. dependence on foreign oil and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
America’s domestic energy boom has laid that first argument to rest. As for the environment, the RFS does more to harm our planet than to help it. Instead of aligning themselves on the wrong side of this issue, both candidates should commit to ending the RFS as quickly as possible.
America’s peculiar relationship with ethanol began in the 1970s. Back then, the nation relied on foreign countries for much of its gasoline — a situation that undermined U.S. security and drove up prices at the pump.
Congress sought to address this problem by encouraging the transition to more plentiful, renewable fuels. It didn’t hurt that the policy carried considerable political benefits, enjoying strong support from both environmentalists and corn-growers.
The RFS’s 2005 implementation capped this decades-long effort to boost ethanol consumption. The mandate requires U.S. transportation fuel to contain a certain volume of renewable material — ethanol chief among them.
But the United States is no longer dependent on volatile foreign regimes for its oil supply.
Since 2008, American oil production has grown by nearly 90 percent — a historic surge that has made our country the biggest petroleum producer on the planet. And for the first time on record, America has larger oil reserves than any other country in the world, making it unlikely that we will run out of the resource soon.
The environmentalist case for the RFS has fared no better. Remember, ethanol was supposed to be a greener, more climate-friendly alternative to fossil fuels. By artificially inflating the demand for corn, however, the RFS has dramatically increased the amount of previously unfarmed land devoted to corn production. Some 7.3 million acres of natural habitat were destroyed in the few years after the policy took effect, according to researchers at the University of Wisconsin.
Since the process of transforming these lands unlocks vast amounts of carbon dioxide, ethanol ultimately contributes to greenhouse gas pollution. According to an analysis from the Clean Air Task Force, in fact, over a 30-year period, emissions from ethanol would actually be 28 percent higher than those produced from gasoline.
Motorists are also worse off thanks to the RFS. After all, corn-based ethanol contains a third less energy than gasoline, reducing the number of miles a driver can travel on a full tank. In New England alone, ethanol mandates cost motorists an additional $6.29 billion between 2005 and 2014.
Even our cars are poorly served by the ethanol mandate. Increasingly stringent Environmental Protection Agency blending requirements have made motor fuel unsuitable for many cars. For nine out of 10 of today’s vehicle engines, in fact, filling up on high-ethanol fuel could result in serious damage.
Too many lawmakers and federal officials would rather ignore this evidence than admit that the RFS was a disastrous mistake. The Obama Administration, for instance, has repeatedly failed to conduct legally required studies of the RFS’s effects on the planet, according to recent finding from the EPA’s inspector general. Remarkably, the administration doesn’t dispute this accusation.
That both Trump and Clinton are continuing the RFS charade doesn’t bode well for the future. The ethanol mandate is a clear example of a policy with no real benefits and serious, measurable costs. Anyone seeking to lead this country shouldn’t be afraid to say so.
Jeff Stier is a Senior Fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research and heads its Risk Analysis Division.