The Missing Piece in President Obama’s Environment Speech

June 25, 2013

We can’t have a serious conversation about  greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the environment without first addressing the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). Today, the president called for “next-generation” biofuels in a speech at Georgetown University. Why? Because not only is the current generation of biofuels failing to deliver promised environmental benefits, it’s actually working against those goals. If the U.S. is to truly “lead the global effort in climate change,” we need to consider the impact of corn ethanol production on land, air and water resources.

To reach the swelling biofuel-blending targets mandated by the RFS, increasing amounts of ethanol — made from corn and other biomass — are being added to America’s gasoline supply. Producing enough biofuel to meet the RFS means more land is being allocated to the production of biofuel feedstock — by 2022, as much as 30-60 million acres will be needed.

This ongoing conversion could materialize in nearly 80 percent of current American farmland being devoted to raising corn for ethanol if RFS mandates are actually met—a transformation of American farms that would result in fewer and more expensive domestic crops.  Meeting the RFS will also require the mass conversion of natural lands — home to various wildlife and fowl — into farmland.

And if detrimental land use conversion isn’t bad enough — the increased production of corn-based ethanol also increases GHG emissions and impacts air quality. Land use conversion to accommodate biofuel is expected to double worldwide GHG emissions over the course of 30 years, according to researchers from Princeton, Georgetown and Iowa State. And according to a 2011 study by the National Research Council, the production and use of biomass ethanol results in a higher release of air pollutants such as particulate matter, ozone and sulfur oxide, compared to petroleum-based fuels.

Furthermore, corn-based ethanol production affects both the supply and quality of water. The process of refining a single gallon of corn-based ethanol requires 170 gallons of water, compared to 5 gallons of water per gallon of gasoline. In addition, corn production can require a heavier use of fertilizers and pesticides, increasing the potential for chemical run-off into the water supply.

There is no silver lining to all of the negative environmental impacts caused by RFS ethanol mandates — higher blends of ethanol in gasoline (like E15 and E85) cannot be used in cars manufactured before 2001, heavy duty vehicles, marine engines and smaller engines like those in lawnmowers and chainsaws. Even newer cars face critical engine damage if fueled with ethanol-blended gasoline, which is why automakers including Chrysler, General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Hyundai and several others have said their warranties would not cover new vehicles that have been fueled with E15.

The president’s speech raises an opportunity to address the policies harming our land, air and water resources and make strides to protect the environment; but forging ahead with failed polices like the RFS and biofuel mandates will only set us back.