Unwind the Ethanol Mandate
Dumping America’s misguided renewable fuel standard will help save the Great Plains.
by Mark J. Perry
In August of 1804, the Lewis and Clark expedition entered the eastern border of the Great Plains. Captain Lewis and Second Lieutenant Clark were some of the first white men to cast their eyes on a vast expanse of land that has come to define, for many, the landscape that is quintessentially American.
The grasslands of North America are the stuff of legend. To Lewis and Clark – as the late Stephen Ambrose wrote in “Undaunted Courage” – the vast pristine plains of the Midwest were like a Garden of Eden, remarkably full of life and stunning beauty.
And yet, today, despite our reverence for the Great Plains and the fragile ecosystem of the grasslands, more and more of this majestic landscape is being converted to corn production for purely political reasons. We should know better, but the onslaught of man, machine and agriculture on what little is left unspoiled seems relentless.
Ironically, those that should have been working to protect the grasslands have mistakenly encouraged their demise. Back in 2004, when concern about U.S. energy security was escalating and biofuels were promoted as an innovative, green solution to our growing dependence on foreign fuel, environmental groups enthusiastically supported the establishment of the renewable fuel standard, better known as the ethanol mandate.
In fact, the Natural Resources Defense Council, an influential international environmental advocacy group, released a 96-page report in 2004 predicting that a biofuels mandate would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1.7 billion tons per year, improve air quality, reduce soil erosion and even expand wildlife habitat. Now more than a decade after the ethanol mandate became law in 2005, these same environmental groups that lobbied so vigorously for its establishment are now recoiling in horror at the ecological Frankenstein they helped create.
The reality is that the ethanol mandate hasn’t lowered emissions nor has it improved air quality. It has, however, led to rapid depletion of groundwater in several states and the destruction of millions more acres of untouched prairie grassland as corn growers have expanded their production to fuel the ethanol industry. The acreage used to grow corn in the U.S. has increased more than 15 percent since the establishment of the mandate in 2005. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that this year’s corn crop will be the largest ever at 14.5 billion bushels.
There is a growing consensus that it’s way past time to drop the renewable fuel standard. Good intentions aside, we now know that the promises used to sell the ethanol mandate a decade ago have not even come close to approaching reality.
Along with other environmental groups, the Natural Resources Defense Council has now completely reversed its position on biofuels. Instead of lobbying for ethanol, it’s now lobbying against it, saying, “There is no denying that the bulk of today’s conventional corn ethanol carries grave risks to the climate, wildlife, waterways and food security.” And yet, corn ethanol continues to be blended into our nation’s gasoline supply to account for 10 percent of the fuel Americans consume every day.
Big Corn and the ethanol industry are struggling to hold off increasing pressure from both the left and the right to end the renewable fuel standard mandate. Environmental groups have had enough of the ecological damage, and conservatives – at least those outside of corn states – are increasingly uncomfortable with a government mandate that funnels tens of billions of dollars in benefits to a well-organized special interest group. Furthermore, America’s energy security problems that the ethanol mandate was supposed to address no longer exist.
Thanks to America’s shale revolution that started just as the mandate passed in 2005, U.S. oil production has surged to near-record levels in recent years, completely reversing more than three decades of falling domestic production. The U.S. is now more energy secure than it has been since the early 1970s and the fears of eroding U.S. oil production and peak oil that motivated the original mandate are now long gone.
There is a growing consensus that it’s way past time to drop the renewable fuel standard. Good intentions aside, we now know that the promises used to sell the ethanol mandate a decade ago have not even come close to approaching reality. There are many good reasons to unwind the ethanol mandate, but perhaps none is more important than protecting the last vestiges of the Great Plains. Far too much of our famous prairie grassland has already been converted to crop land in pursuit of a flawed mandate that damages the environment and is bad for consumers, cars and the economy. Congress must finally move to correct a failed energy policy and fix the ethanol mistake.