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The Food, Environmental Dilemmas of the RFS

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted March 7, 2015

The politics of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) and its mandates for ever-increasing ethanol use are on display this weekend in Iowa, a key presidential primary state. Nothing against Iowa – or ethanol, for that matter – but the RFS illustrates that when you mix energy policy and politics bad public policy can result.

Certainly, the RFS shows the difficulty of trying to apply central planning to the marketplace, of trying to mandate consumer behavior. The RFS is a relic of the era of energy scarcity in the U.S. whose intentions have been superseded by surging domestic oil and natural gas production.

Still, the RFS remains and along with it potential risks to the economy, vehicle engines and more. It also risks unintended consequences, including a moral/ethical dilemma over whether food should be turned into fuels, as well as concern for the environmental impact of corn ethanol production.

Let’s start with a closer look at the food-for-fuel debate. Earlier this year a World Resources Institute report questioned public policy that essentially encourages devoting more and more cropland acreage to the development of biofuels. Key findings:

  • Dedicating crops and/or land to generating bioenergy makes it harder to feed the planet in a sustainable way.
  • Bioenergy is an inefficient use of land to generate energy.
  • Large estimates of greenhouse gas emissions reductions from bioenergy are based on a misplaced belief that biomass is inherently a carbon-free source of energy.

From the report:

The world needs to close a 70 percent “food gap” between crop calories available in 2006 and those needed in 2050. If crop-based biofuels were phased out by 2050, the food gap would shrink to 60 percent. But more ambitious biofuel targets—currently being pursued by large economies—could increase the gap to about 90 percent. … Wider bioenergy targets—such as a goal for bioenergy to meet 20 percent of the world’s total energy demand by 2050—would require humanity to at least double the world’s annual harvest of plant material in all its forms. Those increases would have to come on top of the already large increases needed to meet growing food and timber needs. Therefore, the quest for bioenergy at a meaningful scale is both unrealistic and unsustainable.

The institute’s findings mirror those of ActionAid:

The environmental benefits of food-based and land-intensive biofuels are questionable at best, because the food or animal feed production the biofuel crops replaces must then be grown elsewhere. Converting new land for agriculture actually causes extra carbon emissions and can lead to deforestation and the loss of biodiversity and wetlands.

As well as those by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which issued its “Ethanol’s Broken Promise” report last year:

It is now clear that the federal corn ethanol mandate has driven up food prices, strained agricultural markets, increased competition for arable land and promoted conversion of uncultivated land to grow crops.

EWG and others also question the supposed environmental benefits of corn ethanol, which has grown under the RFS. EWG found that from 2008 to 2011 more than 8 million acres of grassland and wetlands were converted to corn alone, resulting in annual emissions of 85 million to 236 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. EWG:

In light of these emissions, many scientists now question the environmental benefit of so-called biofuels produced by converting food crops. A few recent studies still claim that corn ethanol produces fewer emissions than gasoline, but a careful look reveals that their methods don’t properly account for land use change. Studies that do factor in land use change show that using food crops to produce biofuels – once considered a promising climate change mitigation strategy – is worse for the climate than gasoline.

Earlier this year a team of University of Minnesota researchers looked at the life-cycle air quality impacts of alternatives to conventional gasoline vehicles and found that powering vehicles with corn ethanol or with coal-based or grid electricity increases “monetized environmental health impacts by 80% or more relative to using conventional gasoline.” From their paper:

Although corn ethanol as modeled here emits marginally less GHGs than does gasoline, the combined climate and air quality impacts are greater than those from gasoline vehicles. … Other fuels, such as corn ethanol [the climate impact of which is unclear], are more damaging than conventional vehicles when air pollution impacts are considered alone or when air pollution and climate impacts are considered together.

Others have come to similar conclusions, including the National Academy of Sciences, the Clean Air Task Force and the Associated Press in its own investigation.

Circling back to RFS politics, this point should be underscored: The RFS, with its command-and-control mindset, is having real-world impacts. These impacts, unfortunately, have been subordinated to political agendas even as the program’s original intent has been overtaken by a new era of U.S. energy abundance. Take away the politics, and it’s clear the RFS should be repealed.


Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.