Ethanol mandate hurts environment

Congress has a rare opportunity to finally fix a legislative and financial fiasco: It can and should repeal the Renewable Fuel Standard once and for all. Repeal of the standard would result in a big gain for American taxpayers who have been footi...

Congress has a rare opportunity to finally fix a legislative and financial fiasco: It can and should repeal the Renewable Fuel Standard once and for all. Repeal of the standard would result in a big gain for American taxpayers who have been footing the bill for higher energy and food prices -- based on false promises.

Frankly, anything short of repeal will just make a bad program worse.

Since its inception, the ethanol mandate has made neither economic nor environmental sense. Yet through Republican and Democrat administrations, the rules remained in place with supporters making lofty promises about the mandate's purported benefits. Candidate Barack Obama promised Iowa supporters that corn would be a centerpiece of his plan to slow global warming. The same year, President George W. Bush signed the Energy Independence and Security Act, forcing oil companies to "add billions of gallons of ethanol to their gasoline." Bush said the bill would make our country "stronger, cleaner and more secure." Instead, since 2007, consumers have seen rapidly increasing food and fuel costs while the environment has suffered serious unintended side effects.

The ecological problems government-incentivized corn-fuel mandates have wrou-ght should be reason enough for Congress to abandon the standard. According to the Associated Press, American farmers last year planted "15 million more acres of corn ... than before the ethanol boom." Indeed, AP research says that "5 million acres of land set aside for conservation -- more than Yellowstone, Everglades and Yosemite national parks combined -- have vanished on Obama's watch." Much of this land was deemed ecologically fragile farmland and was set aside from regular crop planting. Yet government officials have been repeatedly surprised at the large swaths of fragile acreage turned into cornfields by farmers eager to reap the benefits of the spike in corn prices driven by the renewable standard.

With Washington rules effectively coercing corn growers to produce fuel instead of food with this mandate, it's not surprising to see conservation land converted into cropland. After 35 years, environmental groups such as the Environmental Working Group and the Sierra Club now oppose ethanol subsidies on the basis of a recent report from the National Research Council. That report, released last year, states: "Although it may seem obvious that subsidizing biofuels should reduce (carbon dioxide) emissions because they rely on renewable resources rather than fossil fuels, many studies we reviewed found the opposite."


Historically, farmers have used most of the domestic corn crop to feed livestock. However, in the past three years, the majority of America's corn was diverted into fuel. According to the Wall Street Journal, "A 2009 study by the Congressional Budget Office found that in some years ethanol has raised food prices by 5 to 10 (percent) for everything from corn flakes to ground beef."

The American Meat Institute recently released a statement calling the RFS "a flawed policy." Its solution was to repeal the mandate -- now.

As you can imagine, corn growers and the owners of ethanol plants haven't been shy about aggressively lobbying in favor of a mandate that keeps corn and food prices high and some farm incomes higher. Last year, the CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association told a U.S. House of Representatives committee hearing that, "One of the purposes of the (RFS) was to increase farm income (and) increase the price of corn. It has done that."

And then some. Faced with the dubious economic and environmental benefits of the RFS, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has been forced to carefully choose his words when discussing the alleged merits of ethanol, telling the AP: "I don't know whether I can make the environmental argument or the economic argument."

The Environmental Protection Agency recently announced -- for the first time -- that it was lowering the federal mandate that "dictates how much ethanol must be blended into the nation's gasoline."

For the sake of taxpayers, consumers and our environment, let's hope the EPA's modest first step is the beginning of the end of this unworkable and expensive mandate.

Editor's note: Meeks is CEO of the Minneapolis-based Freedom Foundation of Minnesota.

Related Topics: CORN
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