Draining the ethanol tank
Trump shouldn’t allow corn to remain king at the gas pump
Red may be the color of Donald Trump’s America, but yellow is the color of the nation’s most favored cash crop. Corn is good, especially sweet corn swathed in butter for supper on a gentle summer’s night. Mules like field corn, and so they should.
But with a Republican Congress, the new president will have the first opportunity in nearly a decade to cut back some of the corny regulations that President Obama has imposed on the landscape. A fitting target for the paring knife should be the unpopular and unwieldy Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires the addition of corn-derived ethanol to petroleum-based fuels. Corn may be king in the Middle West, but it shouldn’t rule the road from coast to coast.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently published its 2017 production targets for ethanol and other biofuels, and like past years, it requires an ocean of the homegrown fuel be poured into the gasoline tanks of the nation’s cars and trucks. Total renewable fuel supplies are mandated to rise from 18.11 billion gallons this year to 19.28 billion gallons in 2017, an increase of 6 percent. Oil refiners are required to blend the juice into their gasoline and diesel fuel, or pay substantial penalties.
The problem with all that ethanol is where to pour it. Though the United States consumed 140.4 billion gallons of fuel in 2015, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, that’s about 2 billion less than in 2007. While the nation’s fuel consumption has fallen, the EPA’s biofuels requirement has risen, leaving refiners awash in the stuff. Putting more than 10 percent ethanol into the tank of a modern automobile risks damaging the engine.
To be fair, the Renewable Fuel Standard is a dilemma not entirely of the EPA’s making. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 mandating biofuels was the brainchild of the Republican Congress during the administration of President George W. Bush. Legislators were persuaded that ethanol would provide a supplement that could reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil. Failing to foresee the global economic downturn, they unleashed a tidal wave of sun-ripened fuel that grows every year. It was all with the best of motivations, but as Dr. Johnson observed, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
During his presidency, Mr. Obama has been a record-setting paver: He has strewn the nation with more than 80,000 pages of new rules for 2016 alone. During his eight-year White House tenure, the president will have served 551 “economically significant” regulations — those with a potential economic impact exceeding $100 million. By comparison, his predecessor, George W. Bush, issued only 390, which was excessive enough.
A decade after passage, the Renewable Fuel Standard gobbles up 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop, paying farmers with cash from a government-backed market but costing drivers an estimated $83 billion in extra fuel costs. During that period, breathtaking advances in drilling techniques have unlocked enormous reservoirs of oil and natural gas, driving down fuel prices to levels thought to have disappeared forever. Drivers were paying around $3 a gallon in 2007; the current price in most places is a little over $2 a gallon. There’s no longer a reasonable rationale for forcing Americans to pay higher prices for ethanol-diluted gas.
Ronald Reagan once observed that “a government regulation is the nearest thing to eternal life that anyone will see on this earth.” Republicans led by Donald Trump should prove the Gipper wrong by ending the ethanol mandate, and leave corn to the supper table.