It’s time to really cut, cut, cut ethanol and other renewable fuel mandates – maybe to zero
The closest thing to earthly eternal life, President Ronald Reagan used to say, is a government program.
Those who benefit from a program actively and vocally defend it, often giving millions in campaign cash to politicians who help perpetuate it, while those who oppose the program or are harmed by it are usually disorganized and distracted by daily life. Legislative inertia and obstruction of the kind so graphically on display in the Senate over the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) also help to perpetuate program life.
The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), created under the 2005 Energy Policy Act and expanded by the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, is a perfect example. It has more lives than Freddy Krueger.
The laws require that refiners blend steadily increasing amounts of ethanol into gasoline, and expect the private sector to produce growing amounts of “cellulosic” biofuel, “biomass-based diesel” and “advanced” biofuels. Except for corn ethanol, the production expectations have mostly turned out to be fantasies. The justifications for renewable fuels were scary exaggerations then, and are now illusions.
Let’s begin with claims made to justify this RFS extravaganza in the first place. It would reduce pollution, we were told. But cars are already 95% cleaner than their 1970 predecessors, so there are no real benefits.
The USA was depleting its petroleum reserves, and the RFS would reduce oil imports from unstable, unfriendly nations. But the horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) revolution has given the United States at least a century of new reserves. America now exports more oil and refined products than it imports, and US foreign oil consumption is now the lowest since 1970.
Renewable fuels would help prevent dangerous manmade climate change, we were also told. This assumes climate is driven by manmade carbon dioxide – and not by changes in solar heat output, cosmic rays, ocean currents and other powerful natural forces that brought ice ages, little ice ages, warm periods, droughts and floods. It assumes biofuels don’t emit CO2, or at least not as much as gasoline; in reality, over their full life cycle, they emit at least as much, if not more, of this plant-fertilizing molecule.
Moreover, contrary to the hysteria, computer models and Al Gore’s new movie, humanity and planet are not experiencing unusual or unprecedented climate or weather. Inconvenient to Mr. Gore’s theme, in fact not a single category 3-5 hurricane has struck the US mainland since October 2005, a record 11 years, 9 months. He simply presents a seemingly endless stream of weather calamities – what Australian science writer Jo Nova aptly refers to as “primal weather porn” and suggests that these events are unprecedented and caused by humans. The claim reflects deliberate distortion of the truth, abysmal grasp of science (by a man who received a C and a D in his only two college science courses), or both.
To get far more complete, factual, honest climate science, see the Climate Hustle documentary instead.
Moreover, with China, India, the rest of Asia, Africa, Poland and even Germany burning more and more coal – and more gasoline and natural gas – total atmospheric carbon dioxide levels continue to rise. But meanwhile, Greenland just had the coldest July temperature ever recorded in the Northern Hemisphere, and global average temperatures are back to the 1998-2017 hiatus they had before the 2015-16 El Niño.
Regardless, the immortal RFS is still with us. However, the Environmental Protection Agency has issued a previously unheard of proposal: to reduce the RFS total target for 2018 below its 2017 level. It’s a tiny 0.2% reduction, and EPA is not planning to roll back the 15-billion-gallon obligation for “conventional” biofuel, mostly ethanol from corn. But it suggests that a little healthy realism may finally be taking root.
The reduction is for cellulosic biofuel. The federal statutory target is 4.25 billion gallons in 2018. (Set a target, it will become reality, is the mindset.) EPA proposes to reduce the regulatory target to 24 million gallons for 2018, down from 31 million for 2017. But actual production and use of this fuel in 2015 was a meager 2.2 million gallons. This minuscule reduction is a good first step, but far greater reductions in statutory and regulatory targets are realistic and needed, along with a full overhaul of the RFS program.
A little over 15 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol were produced in 2016 – but only 143 billion gallons of gasoline were sold. That means using all the ethanol would require blends above 10% (E10 gasoline) – which is why Big Ethanol is lobbying hard for government mandates (or at least permission) for more E15 (15% ethanol) gasoline blends and pumps. Refiners refer to the current situation as the “blend wall.”
But E15 damages engines and fuel systems in older cars and motorcycles, as well as small engines for boats and garden equipment, and using E15 voids their warranties. You can already find E15 pumps, but finding zero-ethanol, pure-gasoline pumps is a tall order. Moreover, to produce ethanol, the United States is already devoting 40% of its corn crop, grown on nearly 40 million acres – along with billions of gallons of water to irrigate corn fields, plus huge amounts of fertilizer, pesticides and fossil fuels.
Much of the leftover “mash” from ethanol distillation is sold as animal feed. However, the RFS program still enriches a relatively few corn farmers, while raising costs for beef, pork, poultry and fish farmers, and for poor, minority, working class and African families. Ethanol also gets a third less mileage per gallon than gasoline, so cars cannot go as far on a tank of E10 and go even shorter distances with E15.
Ethanol sales also involve the complexities – and sometimes fraudulent practices – of buying and selling Renewable Identification Numbers, or RINs: certificates and credits for ethanol. Large integrated oil companies blend more gasoline than they refine, so they collect more RINs than they need, allowing them to hoard RINs and drive up the prices they charge to independent refiners that must buy these RINs to comply with the law. Large retail businesses like Cumberland Farms, Sheetz, Wawa and Walmart blend fuel and collect RINs, but have no RFS obligation; they use RINs as subsidies and their large volumes to command lower prices from refiners, and thereby gain an unfair advantage over small gas station owners.
The net result is that small mom-and-pop gas stations are squeezed hard and often driven out of business. Small refiners, and those on the East Coast that don’t have large wholesale and retail businesses are forced to buy pricey RINs from integrated oil company competitors, which puts those smaller outfits at a disadvantage and threatens their ability to stay in business. That means steel and refinery jobs and employee benefits are at risk. All told, the RFS presents a lot of problems for illusory benefits.
All these hard realities almost persuaded the US Senate Environment Committee to vote on a recent bill that would have revised some of the outdated and outlandish RFS mandates. It didn’t happen, but the political machinations suggest that even some progressive Democrats are beginning to question the RFS.
Euthanasia and assisted suicide are becoming increasingly popular in some states and countries. To cite the perspective of “progressive ethicists” like Peter Singer, perhaps it’s time to apply the same principles to government programs that have outlived their usefulness or should never have been born.
At the very least, politically spawned, politically correct energy programs – founded on questionable, exaggerated or fabricated climate, environmental, consumer or security scares – should no longer get free passes on land use, habitat and wildlife impacts, environmental quality or consumer and employment issues. They need to be subjected to the same tough legislative, regulatory, activist and judicial assessments that we insist on for oil, gas, coal and nuclear programs
(The opportunity for signing up to present oral testimony at EPA’s August 1 public hearing on the 2018 biofuel standards has passed. However, written statements and supporting information submitted to EPA by August 31 will be given the same weight as comments and materials presented at the hearing.)