Five months into the Obama administration, the Environmental Protection Agency was supposed to complete a study looking at ethanol’s effect on American air quality.
More than eight years later, the agency is finally showing some work. In their new, 145-page report, “Biofuels and the Environment: The Second Triennial Report to Congress,” the EPA repeatedly acknowledges that the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) — the federal law that requires the blending of ethanol with gasoline supplies each year — has done harm to water, soil and air quality.
The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) indicates the June report documents millions of acres of wildlife habitat lost to ethanol crop production and increased nutrient pollution in waterways and air emissions. They also say the report supports their belief that the unintended consequences of replacing gas with ethanol are making things much worse.
The RFS is having negative consequences to a wide variety of environmental indicators, according to David DeGennaro, a policy expert at NWF. “The report is a red flag warning that we need to reconsider the mandate’s scope and its focus on first-generation fuels made from food crops,” he said.
The years-long reporting delay came into the spotlight last year when Sen. John Barrasso, Wyoming Republican and chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, sent a letter to then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt urging him to comply with federal law and complete the report. His letter came just days after the EPA issued new requirements for the blending of ethanol with gasoline, largely siding with the biofuels industry and rebuffing critics — including Mr. Barrasso — who argued the ethanol mandate should be reduced dramatically.
“A growing body of independent academic research has also documented the RFS’ impacts on air, water and land quality, wildlife habitat, and other sensitive ecosystems,” the senator wrote. “EPA cannot ignore the will of Congress and the requirements of the Clean Air Act” by not completing the report.
The study is supposed to be completed every three years, but the EPA had issued it only once before, in 2011. The separate air quality study was due to be completed by May 19, 2009.
The two studies are just one part of a much broader fight that’s now become an intraparty war between Republicans. President Trump has been an outspoken supporter of the RFS, a position shared by Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, and other members of the GOP from states that have benefited greatly from the domestic ethanol sector.
On the other side, Mr. Barrasso, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and others have pressured the administration to slash the RFS, arguing, among other things, that it has an adverse impact on the oil and gas industry.
In his letter, Mr. Barrasso didn’t explicitly cite air quality concerns as a potential reason why the RFS should be reduced. But it’s clear that a study showing biofuels have a negative impact on air provides serious ammunition for his side of the debate.