GREEN BAY, Wis. — The federal renewable fuel standard dates back 13 years and shows its age. It was created by the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and expanded by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.
Both laws reflected concern during the Bush administration over U.S. dependence on imported oil and recognition that the nation should reduce greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change.
The idea was simple enough. Using domestic renewable fuels is a plus for energy independence and reduces use of fossil fuels. It also helps farmers.
But times have changed. Dependence on imported oil peaked in 2005 at 60 percent, and it has been dropping ever since thanks to increased domestic production and improved vehicle fuel economy. It is now only 25 percent.
In addition, converting agricultural food crops to ethanol didn’t make as much sense as many thought it would.
True, it marginally reduced dependence on imported oil, but the conversion process was energy intensive and did little to reduce overall emission of greenhouse gases.
Unsurprisingly, numerous studies have faulted the mandate for its inefficiency and reliance on corn-based ethanol. The critiques have yet to push officials to make meaningful changes in the program.
Politicians in both parties continue to embrace the policy to show support for agricultural production.
As a result, the renewable fuel standard has morphed into what is now an annual federal mandate to grow corn for production of ethanol. Each year the EPA establishes a renewable fuel volume requirement for different forms of biofuels that are to be blended with gasoline and diesel fuel.
That decision is closely watched by the oil industry and farm groups, which intensely lobby both the White House and Congress in opposite directions on the mandate. The White House hosted several meetings with the groups in the past month to seek agreement.
In late 2017, the agency left the standard pretty much where it was to ensure “stability in the marketplace.” It is easy to see why. Some 40 percent of the domestic corn crop is now converted into fuel rather than being used for food.
This agricultural diversion can raise prices and worsen global food scarcity at a time of increasing world hunger. Yet farmers now depend on the program and understandably want to maintain it.
So, should we keep or even expand the fuel standard even though the U.S. is now far less reliant on imported oil? Should we end it because it doesn’t sufficiently reduce greenhouse gases?
Ideally, Congress would reboot the renewable fuel mandate in a new way for today’s economy, and design it as one component of a comprehensive response to climate change.
For starters, Congress could slowly transition from use of corn to make ethanol. Instead, it could encourage production of renewable fuels made from non-food sources. These could be cellulosic biomass such as agricultural residues and native prairie grasses.
There is a strong potential over time for such biofuel production if we get it right, and using such fuels could add jobs and improve the economy.
We also could invest more federal research dollars to find the most promising of such technologies. That in turn could motivate the private sector to make sensible economic choices.
There is some promise, for example, in what is called bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, or BECCS.
Trees and crops can naturally remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and we can store it geologically while also producing biofuels, electricity, and heat. Changes like this could aid farmers while encouraging the development of smarter, better technologies.
Given these alternatives, we should keep the federal ethanol requirement for its desirable goals of reducing reliance on imported oil and limiting greenhouse gas emissions. But we also should change the rules to diversify the crops that are used.
Michael Kraft is professor emeritus of political science and public and environmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Readers may write him at UWGB, 2420 Nicolet Dr., MAC B310, Green Bay, WI 54311 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.