Talking Corn, Cows and Cars in California: Part 1

August 30, 2013

Last week, the flawed Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) came to the forefront of conversation at The Commonwealth Club of California’s ClimateOne panel event in San Francisco. Colin Carter, professor of agriculture at UC Davis, and Michael Marsh, CEO of Western United Dairymen’s Association, debated the merits of this broken policy with Neil Koehler, CEO of Pacific Ethanol.

Carter and Marsh shed light on the devastating consequences of the RFS—particularly on farmers and subsequently consumers.

Carter, who noted that we’ll have a “train wreck” if the RFS’ targets aren’t changed, pointed toward the European Union (EU) as an example for policy reform. “The EU has done U-turn on the belief that ethanol is good for the environment…Europeans are backing away, have reduced the mandate on biofuels and I think we should follow their lead.”

Carter also pointed out how the ethanol mandates in the RFS are effectively removing consumer choice at the pump by making it difficult to find ethanol-free gasoline. “Big corn is taking away consumer choice. In Canada you can make a choice depending on price, but in America you don’t have a choice.”

Carter also noted the lower fuel efficiency standards of ethanol versus gasoline stating “ethanol has 33 percent less energy” which leaves consumers covering fewer miles per gallon running on a “less efficient fuel.”

Meanwhile, California dairy advocate Michael Marsh reminded attendees that ethanol mandates help just one kind of farmer—corn farmers, noting drastic job losses in the dairy industry due in part to the rising cost of feed. As America transformed 40 percent of its corn crop into fuel, hundreds of dairy farms in California alone have been forced to close, unable to keep up with the astronomical prices of feed.

“The cost of corn to feed cattle is a huge part of why dairy farms have closed. Corn should be used for food rather than fuel… to suggest [the RFS] hasn’t had an impact on food prices is absurd.” Agreeing with Marsh, Carter noted that these “policies have driven up food prices 20 to 50 percent.”

Concluding the discussion, representatives from the American Motorcyclist Association as well as BoatUS asked the panelists about the effects of high ethanol blends on small engines and machines. Pacific Ethanol’s Koehler himself agreed that, for boats especially, ethanol mandates are an unrealistic option as “ethanol and water don’t mix.”

Editor’s note: Next week, the Smarter Fuel Future team hears from dairy farmers first hand…