- - Thursday, October 24, 2019

Having the best of intentions is no protection from the worst of consequences. That’s the sobering lesson from the government-run experiment with renewable fuels. Promoted as a cleaner alternative to gasoline, federal fuel mandates have their own environmental impacts. Though America’s farmers have reaped the benefits of selling food crops for fuel production, it is time to mix U.S. energy policy with a strong dose of reason.

President Trump recently announced a new federal commitment to the so-called Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which requires the addition of billions of gallons of crop-derived ethanol into the nation’s supply of gasoline and diesel fuel. “The Farmers are going to be so happy when they see what we are doing for Ethanol,” the president tweeted.

At stake are waivers the Trump Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has granted in the past to certain fuel refineries, exempting them from a requirement to purchase more than 2 billion gallons of mostly corn and soybean ethanol from the annual nationwide mandate of 15 billion gallons. The president’s decision recommits the oil industry to purchasing the full amount, thus ensuring farm income. Whether the mandate kicks in for 2020 or later is still under review.

Farm belt lawmakers, whose jobs depend on bringing home the bacon, applauded the announcement. “President Trump has made clear that he is an ally of corn and soybean farmers as well as ethanol and biodiesel producers,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, Iowa Republican. “This announcement is great news for Iowa, the Midwest and the entire country.”

It’s bad news, though, for the U.S. oil industry, which is required to add the ocean of grain alcohol to their petroleum products. “We are deeply concerned about the administration’s decision to, once again, play politics with our fuel system by increasing an already onerous biofuel mandate, placing greater strain on the U.S. manufacturers he promised to protect and threatening higher costs for consumers,” read a statement from the American Petroleum Institute and the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers.

The RFS was instituted by Congress in 2005 as a means of supplementing the nation’s fossil-fuel supply with homegrown energy when the Iraq War triggered fears of a global oil supply disruption. As a result, most gas sold in the United States contains 10 percent ethanol, called E10. The rule trims petroleum consumption but reduces vehicle gas mileage. The president’s ethanol push could also boost the use of E15. The EPA warns that its 15 percent ethanol concentration can harm engines of older cars and trucks, and the agency bans its use in heavy-duty vehicles such as school buses and delivery trucks.

The RFS was also expected to result in cleaner air due to diminished tailpipe emissions. The Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center credits corn ethanol with 34 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than conventional gasoline. However, a recent white paper by the libertarian Cato Institute disagrees, citing a 2018 American Journal of Agricultural Economics analysis of multiple emissions studies that concluded ethanol offers a miniscule 0.23 percent reduction in greenhouses gases.

The ethanol mandate has impacted the nation’s water supply as well, according to Cato. Between 2008 and 2012, an additional 4.2 million acres of U.S. cropland was planted in mostly marginal areas. Corn processed into E85 fuel (85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline) requires a quart of water per mile traveled — twice as much water to produce than conventional gas. Corn requiring irrigation sucks up 28 gallons per mile traveled. Lawmakers high on ethanol may have overlooked the fact that as corn alcohol reservoirs go up, water tables go down.

Neither have they likely foreseen the United States becoming the world’s largest producer of crude oil. With the nation currently pumping 12.4 million barrels a day, the mandate for ethanol serves a diminishing purpose, aside from providing big-business farmers with a ready market for their crops.

It is understandable that Mr. Trump wants to lend a hand to American farmers hurt by the ongoing trade war between the United States and China. His plan to boost ethanol as well as the Renewable Fuel Standard for 2020, due by Nov. 30, should acknowledge that the benefits of crop-based biofuels are not cut and dried.

The current ethanol use makes balancing the nation’s clean air and water needs trickier, and the bounty of petroleum products make reliance on alternative sources of energy less vital.

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