The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

Paris, the RFS and Real Progress on Emissions

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted November 13, 2015

Ethanol producers want Secretary of State John Kerry to trumpet the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) at the big Paris climate conference later this month. Big Ethanol says the U.S. should highlight the RFS in Paris, not hide it – referring to the fact the RFS is missing from the Obama administration’s “intended nationally determined contribution” document that outlines what the U.S. would do under the next international climate agreement.

Maybe the reason for the omission is the number of studies showing that climate and environment are worse off because of the RFS:

University of Michigan Energy Institute – This study argues that the government-sponsored model used to calculate biofuels’ carbon footprint is flawed, and that the assumed biofuel carbon neutrality built into the model “does not hold up for real-world biofuel production.” Earlier this month study co-author John DeCicco talked about the RFS during a congressional hearing:

“… biofuel carbon neutrality is just an accounting convention and when it is used uncritically in lifecycle comparisons of biofuels with fossil fuels, it results in greatly misleading estimates of the actual impact of fuel substitution. Such erroneous comparisons underpin not only EPA's analyses for the RFS, but also California's LCA-based fuels regulation known as the Low-Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) as well as numerous GREET analyses, including those used to claim GHG reductions for the RFS.”

More from DeCicco’s testimony:

“The notion that using … renewable fuels automatically reduces CO2 emissions (short of processing impacts) is based on a scientifically incomplete, and therefore incorrect, understanding of how carbon is recycled through plant growth. … [M]y research indicates that the RFS has been harmful to the environment to date. The program has resulted in higher cumulative CO2 emissions than otherwise would have occurred and has also damaged the environment in many other ways. … A correct carbon accounting reveals that the production and use of corn ethanol mandated by the policy has increased CO2 emissions to date.”

University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture – Corn ethanol production and use is associated with a number of major pollutants – including volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate matter, sulfur dioxide (SOx) and ammonia, the report says. The chart from the report below shows that over three scenarios, carbon emissions are highest with RFS mandates under the status quo (BAU, left bar):


The UT report:

Looking back over the last 10 years, the RFS and its resulting promotion of corn ethanol as a leading oxygenate supplement to conventional transportation fuels did not meet intended environmental goals.

Environmental Working Group – This report found that millions of acres of grassland and wetlands converted for growing corn resulted in annual emissions of 85 million to 236 million metric tons (CO2e) of greenhouse gases. 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. … The intent of the Renewable Fuel Standard was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, diminish America’s dependence on foreign oil and promote development of advanced biofuels. Instead it has resulted in rapid expansion of corn ethanol production, increasing greenhouse gas emissions, worsening air and water pollution and driving up the price of food and feed.

There’s more, including research from the University of Minnesota, the National Academy of Sciences, the Clean Air Task Force and the Associated Press, in its own investigation. Just last month EPA’s inspector general announced it would begin preliminary research on the lifecycle emissions impacts of the RFS. A new study of the RFS’ effects in Ohio found that the RFS’ “increasingly aggressive” ethanol targets added nearly 1.92 million metric tons (CO2e) in the state from 2005 to 2014.

The truth is Obama administration’s envoys have a better story to tell in Paris than the one about the outdated, mismanaged RFS. It’s a story about the way increased use of natural gas, made available by the American energy revolution, played a major role in reducing U.S. energy-related carbon emissions to near 27-year lows, even as population, energy use and economic activity are all up. API President and CEO Jack Gerard, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed:

The United States has an opportunity to present a proven strategy. Call it the “U.S. Model”—a market-driven approach that does not sacrifice economic growth and energy production. … This was not due to government mandates. Instead, thriving energy production made natural gas more affordable and available, and the market took it from there.

Now there’s a story worth telling in Paris.


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.