The Environmental Protection Agency recently released a report on the impacts of the federal Renewable Fuel Standard that requires billions of gallons of ethanol be blended into the nation’s gasoline supply each year. And the report — which is four years late — comes to the same conclusion that we’ve known for years: The RFS isn’t working.
The “Biofuels and the Environment” study is the EPA’s second report to Congress in which the agency has found serious, significant problems with the RFS.
In this new report, the EPA found that biofuel production associated with large-scale cultivation of corn and soybeans has had damaging effects on the environment, many of which are attributed to overplanting the two crops. These two commodities are the foundation of our food supply, but they are also the dominant feedstocks for biofuel production. Increased corn and soybean cultivation has led to more pesticide use and runoff, which has degraded water quality, ecosystem health, soil quality and possibly even air quality, which is ironic given that the RFS was passed as an amendment to the Clean Air Act.
The report also blames the RFS for contributing to land-use change and decreased biodiversity. These consequences have long been known to the environmental and conservation communities, many of which originally supported the RFS but have turned against it now that its true impacts are clear.
The RFS would be lousy policy on the basis of the environment alone, but it also whacks everyday consumers in the form of higher food costs. Since the RFS became law in 2005, restaurants — including the small business franchise owners who operate under nationally known chain restaurant brands — have borne the brunt of volatile and unpredictable costs. For example, corn prices in the RFS era have fluctuated between $3 and $8 per bushel, compared with a $2 average in the 10 years prior to the RFS.
Due to corn’s prominent use in animal feed, higher corn prices translate into higher prices for other commodities such as beef and poultry. Because chain restaurants and small business franchisees operate on thin profit margins, these extra costs inflate the bills of consumers.
When the RFS was first introduced, corn and soybean ethanol were sold as a “bridge” to greener fuels such as cellulosic and advanced biofuels. According to the EPA report, however, substantial volumes of those fuels have not been produced as anticipated, and large-scale use of feedstocks other than corn and soybeans has not occurred. Even worse, the report concludes that large-scale production is not likely to be reached anytime soon.
Those in the restaurant business have long known of the damage caused by the RFS. Now we have yet another report to provide it. Unless Congress acts to overhaul this broken law, the RFS will continue to harm the environment, businesses and ultimately, consumers. The time for action has come.
• David French is executive director of the National Council of Chain Restaurants in Washington, D.C. For more information, follow @NRFnews.