Unprecedented bicameral legislation seeks to reform the nation’s fuel standard by reducing corn ethanol in gasoline, stepping up pursuit of “next generation” biofuels and returning some U.S. cropland back to natural wildlife habitat.
The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) “has been a well-intentioned flop that is harming our environment by contributing to the conversion of millions of acres of grasslands, wetlands and forests into crop production while failing to bring about the widespread use of truly sustainable fuels like cellulosic,” said Rep. Peter Welch, Vermont Republican and lead sponsor of the GREENER Fuels Act (Growing Renewable Energy through Existing and New Environmentally Responsible Fuels Act) in the House.
“Our commonsense legislation reforms the mandate to dramatically reduce its environmental impact and to support the continued growth of advanced biofuels,” said Mr. Welch.
Sen. Tom Udall, New Mexico Democrat, is sponsor of the companion bill in the Senate.
“The RFS was a well-intentioned idea that has delivered as intended for the conventional ethanol industry, which is now mature and well-established. But the promised environmental benefits have yet to be realized. In fact, the standard that was intended to benefit the environment may well be hurting it,” Mr. Udall said. “Our bill is a forward-looking proposal, offering visionary reforms to put us on a cleaner and more sustainable path. The changes it would make represent a giant step forward to combat the urgent threat of climate change, cut pollution, and protect our planet for future generations.”
High ethanol levels in gasoline can also clog fuel lines and otherwise damage small engines, such as those in motorcycles, boat motors, lawn mowers and snowmobiles.
In January, Mr. Welch and members of the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers took a 30-minute snowmobile ride to highlight the need to eliminate ethanol from gasoline.
The RFS “was intended to grow corn, turn that into ethanol and have it be a clean fuel,” Mr. Welch told reporters, including Vermont Public Radio. “It’s turned out to be a well-intended flop.”
The Welch/Udall bills, H.R. 5212 and S. 2519, are the first to overhaul the RFS. They are supported by Harry Waxman, former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee; the National Wildlife Federation, led by Collin O’Hara; and the Sierra Club National Campaign, led by Debbie Sease.
According to Mr. Welch’s office, these bills would:
First, phase out the corn ethanol mandate and immediately reduce the amount of ethanol in fuel by as much as 1 billion gallons by capping the amount of ethanol that can be blended into conventional gasoline at 9.7 percent.
Second, help farmers return cornfields to pasture and wildlife habitat through a 10 cents-per-Renewable Identification Number (RIN) fee to fund a new Private Land Protection and Restoration Fund in the U.S. Treasury.
The fund will help pay for Department of Interior programs that:
• pay for easements on private lands to keep them out of agricultural production;
• keep the lands in conservation uses like grass, forest, stream buffers, or pollinator habitat and;
• help farmers transition land currently in crop production into other uses.
Third, extend the cellulosic next generation biofuel mandate until 2 billion gallons of annual production is achieved or 2037, whichever is soonest, and improve the way the mandate is implemented to produce liquid transportation fuels that dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“It’s time to admit that the Renewable Fuel Standard has done more harm than good and start supporting sensible fixes,” Mr. Waxman said when the Welch/Udall bills were introduced in March.
“Like many of my colleagues, I supported the admirable environmental goals of the RFS when we created it 10 years ago. Now, it’s clear that the RFS has been a net-negative for the environment. Not only has the RFS failed to spur significant development of truly advanced fuels, but conventional biofuels like corn ethanol and soy biodiesel are destroying wildlife habitat at home and abroad, polluting waterways, and increasing global warming pollution,” said Mr. Waxman, who is chairman of Mighty Earth, a global campaign to protect rainforests and other threatened landscapes.
Mr. O’Mara of NWF said, “This critical legislation offers common-sense solutions that protect wildlife, drinking water, and public health, while supporting family farms and putting the nation on track to meet its clean fuel goals the right way.”
“We thank Rep. Welch and Sen. Udall for their tireless leadership working to reverse the massive grassland losses and growing algal blooms exacerbated by the ethanol mandate-while also moving America toward cleaner, more sustainable fuels,” he said. “We urge the full House and Senate to pass these bills, before the impacts to America’s wildlife and waterbodies become worse and more costly to solve.”
“The Sierra Club applauds Senator Udall, Congressman Welch, and all the members of Congress who are putting common sense first rather than continuing to permit a dirty and destructive policy to remain intact,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. “Instead of continuing to play political games with our environment and public health, these legislators are moving policies that will help undo the damage caused by the ethanol mandate. We urge Congress to pass this legislation immediately rather than continuing to push false theories about ethanol.”