For 40 years, I championed environmental protections and solutions to climate change in Congress. I’m proud of my work to strengthen the Clean Air Act, make drinking water safer, reduce pesticides in food, and cut oil consumption through strong fuel efficiency standards.
Unfortunately, one piece of legislation that I supported in 2007, the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), has not stood the test of time. The RFS had admirable environmental goals. It was aimed at driving a transition to more environmentally friendly transportation fuel and reducing climate pollution. Although it included huge mandates for consumption of food-based fuels that were worrisome at the time, these fuels were sold as a bridge to the production of non-food-based, ultra-low carbon fuels, such as cellulosic ethanol and other truly advanced fuels.
However, while I was still in Congress, an array of peer-reviewed scientific research suggested that food-based biofuels’ climate and environmental impact was as bad or worse than the oil it was meant to replace. In addition, the production of truly advanced, cellulosic fuels failed to materialize. As Ranking Member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, we worked in a bipartisan fashion to evaluate the impact of the program through a series of white papers.
“Burned,” the report issued earlier this year by Mighty Earth and Action Aid USA, provides a dramatic on-the-ground glimpse of the unintended negative consequences of food-based biofuels. It shows that instead of driving large-scale climate solutions, the RFS has largely served as a mandate for corn ethanol and food-based biodiesel production, including soy and palm biodiesel produced overseas.
Biofuels production is driving the destruction of wildlife habitat around the world, impacting jaguars in South America, orangutans in Asia, and monarch butterflies in the United States. In part due to expanded biofuel production, last year saw the largest-ever dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. These biofuels have no carbon emissions benefits and are likely worsening our climate crisis.
It’s time to admit that the RFS has fallen far short of its goals. There is no room in any true clean energy policy for large amounts of food-based biofuels. And while cellulosic biofuels and other truly advanced fuels still offer promise, these better biofuels need new and additional support.
Fortunately, some in Congress are already leading. The GREENER Fuels Act, introduced by New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall and Vermont Rep. Peter Welch, lays out a pro-environment path forward for biofuels.
The RFS has long been seen as a struggle between Big Oil and Big Corn. It is time for pro-environment policymakers to engage in favor of reforms that support and prioritize better biofuels and also reduce the harm caused by corn ethanol and soy and palm biodiesel.
• Henry Waxman is a former congressman from California and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He currently leads the environmental group, Mighty Earth. Please follow @StandMighty.