Late last week the EPA launched an investigation in to the nation’s federal ethanol mandates. It described the move as “discretionary” and, in its own words, intended to “ensure public health and the environment are protected.” The government agency has been spurred to action by mounting evidence that the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS)—the ethanol program first enacted by President Bush and eventually championed by the Obama Administration—isn’t the unalloyed “green” policy it is often sold as. Now, as Clean Technica reports, a new study from a team of scientists at the University of Tennessee has confirmed that the RFS has been, on balance, bad for the environment:
[A]cademic studies have shown that [the RFS] could actually contribute “to a sharp and overall increase of GHGs,” and that ethanol production and use “emits more particulate matter, ozone (as well as other smog precursors), and other air pollutants than gasoline.” […]
According to the Environmental Working Group, the ethanol mandate drove up the price of corn so high that it led farmers to convert some 8 million acres of previously uncultivated land to corn production, resulting in the release of between 85 million and 236 million metric tons of carbon per year, as well as an increase in the application of fertilizers, which also boosts GHG emissions.
To be clear, the biofuel under attack here is corn-based ethanol; there are a number of alternative, more advanced methods of distilling the fuel from plant matter (from cellulose culled from crops grown on marginal land, for example) that are actually ecologically friendly. But the vast majority of the ethanol mandated by the RFS is corn-based, and that’s a problem for a number of reasons, not least the fact that, as the aforementioned study concludes, it can actually raise greenhouse gas emissions.
But corn-based ethanol is worse than just a backfiring, emissions-raising alternative fuel source. It also raises global food prices, starving the world’s poor and potentially even inciting riots. One study estimated that the RFS costs consumers some $10 billion annually at the pump, and even Al Gore has acknowledged that “first-generation ethanol was a mistake.”
From whatever way you look at it, the RFS is an ugly and ill-thought out government program whose problems vastly outweigh its benefits. Congress has so far failed to pass a measure reforming or repealing the RFS, but here’s to hoping that the EPA’s review quickly does more to reveal this biofuel boondoggle. The sooner we put this behind us, the better.