Twelve years ago the United States began a program to support the production of biofuels. The goals were to decrease dependence on foreign oil, create renewable sources of energy, combat global climate change and boost rural economies.
The program, the Renewable Fuel Standard, has been a success. That’s why, despite a massive lobbying effort to cut the standard, the Trump administration last month renewed the program for the next two years. The country will be better for the decision.
The Renewable Fuel Standard, RFS, mandates the blending of renewable fuels with gasoline. To be classified a renewable fuel, a source must show a life-cycle greenhouse gas profile at least 20 percent lower than that of the fossil fuel it replaces.
The renewable fuel used to meet most of the standard is ethanol produced from corn. Corn ethanol is controversial because of its impact on corn markets and on land use. Consequently, several conservation groups have joined with the oil industry in an odd alliance to roll back the RFS.
Opponents of the RFS are equipped with studies, including a recent one from UW-Madison, arguing corn ethanol is a bad idea. The studies are useful in understanding corn ethanol’s shortcomings. But no current energy source — solar, wind, water, oil or nuclear — is free of negative effects. Corn ethanol may be far from perfect. But much is good about corn ethanol, compared to gasoline.
A study conducted for the U.S. Agriculture Department found corn ethanol’s life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions, by 2022, will be 43 percent lower than gasoline baseline emissions if ethanol plants continue as usual. If ethanol production makes improvements with available technologies, emissions reductions could total 76 percent. Corn also may be a bridge to better ethanol-producing biomass crops.
Domestic corn ethanol enhances national security by reducing dependence on foreign nations for energy. And corn is a renewable source of energy, compared to a dwindling supply of petroleum.
Corn ethanol production in 2016 provided nearly 75,000 jobs in rural America and supported an additional 265,000 spin-off jobs. It also added $42 billion to the gross domestic product, $23 billion to household income and $9 billion in tax revenue.
Furthermore, many of corn ethanol’s negative factors turn out to be not so negative after all. As much as 40 percent of U.S. corn is used for ethanol rather than food. But thanks to yield improvements and increases in acres farmed, food prices have remained affordable, and America has exported more corn over the past five years than in the five years before the RFS took effect.
Farmers have cleared land for cornfields, reducing wildlife habitat and increasing ethanol’s carbon footprint. But ethanol is a small part of the incentive to clear more land. Low prices for an array of crops are forcing farmers to look for economies of scale, which leads to planting more acres. In fact, if a rollback in ethanol production further reduces corn prices, farmers may be pressured to clear even more land.
A reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is good. Less dependence on foreign oil is good. Renewable energy is good. More jobs and income for rural areas is good. Earlier this year that evidence convinced China to announce plans to use corn ethanol nationwide by 2020. The evidence means U.S. support of ethanol deserves to go forward as well.