The 5 Things You Need to Know About the RFS

October 6, 2015

Living in a democratic society is both a great privilege and a great responsibility, because as voters, we elect the lawmakers who represent our interests.

At least, that’s how it should be. More and more, however, it seems that some of our elected representatives’ loyalties may lean toward policies that uphold the status quo.

This election season, with so many presidential candidates vying for our country’s highest office, it’s more important than ever to understand the federal policies that affect our daily lives, and our elected representatives’ and would-be representatives’ positions on them. Are the positions they hold in your best interest? Or are they just playing politics? The case of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), the 10-year-old law that created today’s federal ethanol mandate, is one area worth examining.

Here are the five things you should know about the RFS:

  1. The RFS is a federal mandate that requires an escalating amount of renewable fuels are blended into our gasoline supply. Enacted in 2005, the law determined annual targets known as renewable volume obligations (RVOs) that dictate how many gallons of biofuels must be blended into our nation’s gasoline. Each year, the RVO mandates drastically increase, eventually reaching its peak in 2022.
  2. The RFS was intended to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by paving the way for green fuels known as cellulosic or “advanced” biofuels. Lawmakers understood that the technology needed to make vast quantities of advanced (green) biofuels didn’t exist. Their political solution was to allow first-generation biofuels like corn-derived ethanol to satisfy the mandate, despite the fact that corn ethanol is in many ways worse for the environment than the fuels it replaced. This was intended to be a temporary solution that would eventually lead to truly green fuels replacing dirty corn ethanol and becoming a permanent fixture in our nation’s energy mix. It was also a huge windfall for Iowa’s politically powerful corn industry and ethanol lobby.
  3. Because the mandate is met almost exclusively through the production of corn ethanol, the law actually increases our nation’s GHG emissions. To meet the federal ethanol mandate created by the Renewable Fuel Standard, millions of acres of land have been converted from grasslands and conservation lands to grow corn for ethanol.  The refining and burning of corn ethanol in our gas tanks releases even more GHGs. As a result, our nation’s GHG emissions will double over 30 years, and continue increasing for the next 167 years. Additionally, mono-crop farming of this nature has negative impacts on water quality and biodiversity.
  4. As for paving the way for truly green “advanced” biofuels, the mandate hasn’t worked on this front either. Unfortunately, because the mandate is easily met through an overabundance of corn ethanol, true progress towards next-generation fuels that could replace dirty corn ethanol has been limited. And while corn ethanol proponents say the next big breakthrough in advanced cellulosic biofuels is always just around the corner… they’ve been saying that for 10 years while quietly lining their pockets. The fact is, little progress has been made towards next-generation fuels to date and flooding the market with corn ethanol is doing nothing to spur technology advances. In the meantime, their product is doing great environmental damage.
  5. Not only has the mandate backfired, its unintended negative consequences affect us all. While the RFS may have originally been touted as a political solution that would move us toward environmentally-friendly alternative fuels, it’s only served to establish dirty corn ethanol as “America’s renewable fuel.” The both your air and water, are anything but green. A policy that comes at such a high environmental price is a policy we cannot afford.

In 2005, the ethanol lobby made many promises, but instead delivered a flawed energy policy tailored to Iowa’s interests. This election season, reclaim your power as a voter. Tell lawmakers that it’s time to stop pandering to the corn lobby and start reforming the RFS!