Re­think­ing the ethanol stan­dard

Oba­macare isn’t the only man­date Trump should dump

The Washington Times Daily - - OPINION - By Mer­rill Matthews

Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump cruised to vic­tory promis­ing to get rid of the man­date to buy health in­sur­ance. While he’s at it, how about get­ting rid of the man­date to buy ethanol? The fed­eral govern­ment man­dates that vir­tu­ally all gaso­line in­clude ethanol, known as the Re­new­able Fuel Stan­dard (RFS). The En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency (EPA), which over­sees the ethanol pro­gram, re­cently re­leased its 2017 guide­lines for in­creased ethanol us­age, call­ing for nearly 19 bil­lion gal­lons of re­new­able fuel — and in­crease of nearly 700 mil­lion gal­lons over the 2016 level.

When Congress first em­braced ethanol, leg­is­la­tors were con­vinced that adding it to gaso­line would stretch fuel sup­plies, be less ex­pen­sive and bet­ter for the en­vi­ron­ment, and re­duce our re­liance on oil im­ports.

As is turns out, most of those ini­tial as­sump­tions no longer ap­pear to be true.

First, ethanol hurts drivers. Ex­ist­ing blends pro­vide fewer miles per gal­lon, forc­ing drivers to pay more to travel. Ac­cord­ing to the In­sti­tute for En­ergy Re­search, the RFS has sad­dled Amer­i­can drivers with an ex­tra $83 bil­lion at the pump.

Sec­ond, auto man­u­fac­tur­ers and AAA warn that in­creas­ing the per­cent­age of ethanol in our gaso­line past the cur­rent 10 per­cent “blend wall” — which some states are al­low­ing — could harm en­gines, es­pe­cially in older cars. But Congress man­dated that oil re­finer­ies in­crease an­nu­ally the amount of ethanol they mix with gaso­line. The prob­lem is that gaso­line us­age has re­mained rel­a­tively flat since the re­ces­sion, so the only way to meet the man­date is to in­crease the ethanol blend — putting en­gines at risk.

Third, ethanol pro­duc­tion is bad for the en­vi­ron­ment. About 40 per­cent of corn grown in the United States goes into our gas tanks. Farm­ers have plowed up mas­sive tracts of grass­land and wet­lands to plant more corn, which is the key in­gre­di­ent in most ethanol. That con­ver­sion re­leases car­bon stored in soil, plus the corn must be har­vested, trans­ported and re­fined be­fore be­ing added to gaso­line, rais­ing ques­tions about whether ethanol pro­duc­tion gen­er­ates more car­bon emis­sions than ethanol-blend­ing elim­i­nates. The non­profit En­vi­ron­men­tal Work­ing Group has called the in­creased use of ethanol a “cli­mate dis­as­ter.”

The En­ergy In­de­pen­dence and Se­cu­rity Act of 2007, while in­creas­ing the amount of ethanol to be added to our gas tanks, re­quired the EPA to pro­vide re­ports as­sess­ing the ethanol pro­gram. The EPA pro­duced its first re­port in 2012, but failed to meet the next dead­line.

As a re­sult, the agency’s in­spec­tor gen­eral re­cently re­leased a re­port call­ing out the EPA for ne­glect­ing this obli­ga­tion, not­ing that the agency “has not com­plied with the re­quire­ment to pro­vide a re­port ev­ery 3 years to Congress.” The in­spec­tor gen­eral went on to em­pha­size that this “in­for­ma­tion is needed to fully in­form the EPA, Congress and other stake­hold­ers of the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts of U.S. bio­fuel pol­icy.”

In the wake of the in­spec­tor gen­eral’s con­dem­na­tion, agency of­fi­cials have promised to pro­duce the next assess­ment by 2017.

Why the de­lay? Maybe the EPA knows the United States no longer needs re­new­able fu­els to wean it­self off for­eign en­ergy. Thanks to the rapid ex­pan­sion of the do­mes­tic oil and gas in­dus­try, this coun­try has passed Rus­sia and Saudi Ara­bia as the world’s top en­ergy pro­ducer.

Elim­i­nat­ing the RFS would also in­crease de­mand for gaso­line, stok­ing re­newed do­mes­tic pro­duc­tion and ac­cel­er­at­ing our march to to­tal en­ergy in­de­pen­dence.

Dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial pri­maries, Mr. Trump pro­claimed his sup­port for ethanol in Iowa, a big ethanol-pro­duc­ing state. But since Mr. Trump un­der­stands why a man­date has skewed the health in­sur­ance mar­ket, he should un­der­stand why an ethanol man­date could skew the en­ergy mar­ket.

We don’t need to elim­i­nate the ethanol in­dus­try, just the man­date to use it. Let con­sumers de­cide at the gas pump if they want ethanol in their gaso­line. Mer­rill Matthews is a res­i­dent scholar with the In­sti­tute for Pol­icy In­no­va­tion in Dal­las.


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