EPA right to put brakes on ethanol mandate

The News TribuneNovember 25, 2013 

In July, a motorist fills up with gasoline containing ethanol in Des Moines, Iowa. The Obama administration proposes reducing the amount of ethanol in the nation’s fuel supply, acknowledging that the biofuel law championed by both parties in 2007 is not working as expected.

CHARLIE RIEDEL/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Congress had mostly good intentions back in 2007 when it passed the Renewable Fuel Standard. That law requires the nation to keep ratcheting up its use of ethanol and other biofuels as an additive to gasoline. The aim was to use more of these renewable sources of energy and less gas – a finite fossil fuel.

Enter the law of unintended consequences.

Relying more on renewable sources of fuel – such as corn-based ethanol – was supposed to be an environmentally friendly way to cut dependence on foreign oil. But the reality has been the opposite, according to an Associated Press investigation.

Farmers rushed to grow more corn, and in the process destroyed millions of acres of habitat and filled in wetlands. They polluted water supplies with fertilizers and pesticides and increased the size of the Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone.”

Today, almost 40 percent of the corn grown in this country goes toward ethanol production. Diverting corn to a government-mandated policy has driven up the price of feed for cattle – which in turn has increased the cost of meat and other commodities consumers buy. It’s even made such diet staples as tortillas more expensive for folks in Latin America.

And who knew back when the ethanol requirement was enacted that even as the nation’s population kept growing, American drivers would actually be using less fuel, due mainly to more efficient vehicles and driving less – hence a decreased need for ethanol to dilute the gas going into our fuel tanks. If we’re using less gas, it doesn’t make much sense to keep increasing the amount of ethanol we use as required by the Renewable Fuel Standard.

That’s why the Environmental Protection Agency proposes cutting for the first time the amount of ethanol that must be added to the nation’s fuel supply – by about 3 billion gallons in 2014.

It’s the right move. If anything, it might not go far enough. Given the damage that increased corn production has done to the environment and consumers’ food bills, Congress should consider a complete overhaul of the mandate. That there’s enough distance between now and the Iowa caucuses suggests there’s no time to waste. (Only a very brave presidential candidate would come out against ethanol in that corn mecca.)

Big Oil has been pushing for reductions or elimination of the biofuels mandate, so there’s been some criticism that the EPA proposal is a capitulation to the petroleum industry. That’s unfair; the agency is simply responding to new realities and recognizing that there’s no longer the same rationale for increased ethanol production. It should move ahead with the proposal.

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