The RFS and Climate

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted September 21, 2015

The third in a series of posts on the intersection of energy development and policy and the pursuit of climate goals. Last week: The Clean Power Plan’s flawed approach in the energy sector and the role of increased natural gas use in improving air quality. Today:  The impacts of the Renewable Fuel Standard and federal ethanol policy.

A decade ago Congress passed legislation creating the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) – requiring escalating volumes of ethanol in the U.S. fuel supply – that was intended in part to help reduce crude oil imports while capitalizing the supposed environmental advantages of ethanol.

Crude oil imports indeed have been falling since 2008. But, as we’ve detailed before, virtually all of the decrease is due to rising domestic crude oil production, not the RFS. Thanks to vast domestic shale reserves and safe hydraulic fracturing, the U.S. is the world’s leading producer of oil and natural gas – which by far has had the most to do with reducing U.S. net crude imports.


As for climate and air quality goals, ever-increasing ethanol use as required by the RFS isn’t as good for the environment as ethanol supporters claim, a number of important studies show. So we have a couple of big points in the national conversation about climate and air quality: 1) As we’ve seen, the U.S. already is making significant progress because of increased natural gas use, and 2) government must first do no harm as is apparent with the RFS.  

A couple of studies hone in on that second point. The Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) study, “Ethanol’s Broken Promise,” found that millions of acres of grassland and wetlands have been converted to corn ethanol production, resulting in annual greenhouse gas emissions of 85 million to 236 million metric tons. The report:

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.

EWG’s Heather White during a conference call with reporters earlier this year:

“We really do feel like it’s time to reform the RFS, especially given the tremendous impact we’ve seen of corn ethanol on our environment, whether it be increased greenhouse gas emissions … or the pollution of our air and water and also the destruction of critical wildlife habitats. One of the things that we were promised originally in 2007 is that the RFS would be a bridge to truly sustainable biofuels. And what we’ve seen has been in effect just a bridge to more corn ethanol.”

During a separate call this year, EWG’s Scott Faber said corn ethanol production that was supposed to advance environmental goals hasn’t:

“Unfortunately, exactly the opposite is exactly what has happened. Implementation of the RFS has significantly increased greenhouse gas emissions when compared to emissions from gasoline, it has increased water pollution, increased the emission of criteria air pollutants and it has destroyed valuable habitat for wildlife.”

Click here for an investigative report by the Associated Press that basically says the ethanol era under the RFS has “proven far more damaging to the environment than politicians promised and much worse than the government admits today.” AP:

Even under the government's optimistic projections, the ethanol mandate wasn't going to reduce greenhouse gas right away. And with the model so far off from reality, independent scientists say it's hard to make an argument for ethanol as a global warming policy. “I'd have to think really hard to come up with a scenario where it's a net positive,” said Silvia Secchi, a Southern Illinois University agriculture economist. She paused a few moments, then added, “I'm stumped.”


Research published this summer by the University of Michigan Energy Institute found that the government-sponsored model used to calculate biofuels’ carbon footprint is flawed and that a more accurate methodology shows that corn ethanol doesn’t have an edge over petroleum gasoline in reducing CO2 emissions:

Direct accounting of actual carbon flows shows that, at best, corn ethanol production fails to reduce CO2 emissions relative to petroleum gasoline, and even that result depends on the gain in cropland carbon uptake that occurs with a large shift from growing soybeans to growing corn. If the baseline land use was corn production, then the increase in GHG emissions due to ethanol production would be significantly higher. Finally, if consequential effects including [indirect land-use change] were to be included, the result would be a yet even higher estimate of the adverse net GHG emissions impact of biofuel use.

Then there’s research from the University of Minnesota that 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.” The UM 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.

The point here is that flawed federal policy – mismanaged by EPA and full of risk for consumers, the broader economy and some important economic sectors – has potential negative impact on climate, air quality and the overall environment.

The challenge for policymakers is two-fold: First, they should acknowledge real progress that’s being made on climate and air quality because of increased use of clean-burning natural gas (which strongly suggests policies that encourage more safe and responsible development) and second, to repeal the RFS. 


Mark Green joins API after spending 16 years as national editorial writer in the Washington Bureau of The Oklahoman newspaper. In all, he has been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years, including six years as sports editor at The Washington Times. He lives in Occoquan, Virginia, with his wife Pamela. Mark graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in journalism and earned a masters in journalism and public affairs at American University. He's currently working on a masters in history at George Mason University, where he also teaches as an adjunct professor in the Communication Department.

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