The Environmental Protection Agency announced an increase last week in the amount of corn-based ethanol and other renewable fuels that oil companies must add to the nation's gasoline supply. While the new standard of 18 billion gallons in 2016 — most of it ethanol brewed from corn — is lower than what Congress mandated, it is still far too high for the environment, and for the economy. In fact, the entire mandate program was and is a bad idea.
This page has a long history of backing clean energy and efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions, but converting corn to ethanol to burn in cars doesn't do much to get us there. In fact, recent research suggests ethanol-blended fuel could be worse for the environment than gasoline alone once you tally up the effects of producing and using it. In a report last year, the Environmental Working Group described the purported benefits of adding ethanol to gasoline as a “broken promise.” Meanwhile, diverting tons of corn to fuel production has affected the price of many agricultural products, costing consumers billions of dollars.
Congress created the renewable fuel standard in 2005 in part to reduce dependence on foreign oil. Lawmakers expanded the program two years later, directing the EPA is to increase the standard annually until it reaches 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel in 2022. But lagging production and anemic development of other biofuels has forced the EPA to set lower standards than the congressional targets. For instance, the 18-billion-gallon mandate for 2016 is far below the 22.25-billion-gallon goal for the year.
Many conservatives dislike the mandate as a mix of corporate welfare and unwarranted government meddling in the marketplace. Oil companies don't like it since it means less oil sold. Environmentalists have soured on corn-bred ethanol, and the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year questioned how much value biofuels offer as a mitigator to carbon emissions. On the other side, the Obama administration embraces the mandate as part of its environmental, energy and agricultural policies. Corn growers and the biofuels industry, which have invested heavily, would take a hit if the mandates went away.
But go away they must. This page opposed the renewable fuel standards when they were adopted, and the evidence of corn-based ethanol's shortcomings since then has only firmed our position. Congress should move to end it.