Editorial: EPA dodges responsibility on ethanol

Source: By The Editorial Board, Denver Post • Posted: Monday, September 5, 2016

Corn is delivered to the Green Plains ethanol plant in Shenandoah, Iowa. Why aren't people getting arrested utside the White House to protest the use of corn ethanol? (Associated Press file)
Associated Press file. Corn is delivered to the Green Plains ethanol plant in Shenandoah, Iowa.

The federal ethanol fuel mandate is costly to consumers and damaging to the environment, but it will never be scaled back or eliminated unless Congress and the executive branch are given up-to-date scientific assessments they trust.

So why won’t the Environmental Protection Agency develop the needed analysis? The agency is mandated by law to do so and yet has been shirking this duty for years.

The EPA’s own office of inspector general reported last month that although the agency is supposed to provide Congress an assessment of the impacts of biofuels every three years, it had failed to complete one since 2011. And it hasn’t provided an analysis of ethanol’s effect on greenhouse gas emissions since 2010, even though it promised it would.

As the inspector general explained, the reporting requirement the EPA has ignored “provides for an objective analysis on the environmental impacts and unintended consequences of U.S. biofuel policy. This analysis is important given conflicting scientific opinions” about biofuels.

Such language actually underplays the importance of the EPA stepping up to the plate. Ethanol once seemed a promising substitute for gasoline and diesel, one that would improve air quality and reduce oil imports while giving a boost to corn farmers in the bargain. As recently as a decade ago there was broad agreement on an ethanol mandate known as the Renewable Fuels Standards, which requires blending an increasing amount of biofuels into the nation’s fuel supply.

But as the years have passed it’s become increasingly clear that federal ethanol policy is a bad deal all around. To begin with, it hikes the cost of fuel and reduces gas mileage, although this was always known to be the case. More disturbingly — and unexpectedly — by paying farmers to plant crops for fuel rather than food, the ethanol mandate drives up the cost of food, not only here but in impoverished countries abroad.

And the mandate induces farmers to plow up fallow land. An Associated Press investigation in 2013 discovered a “cascade of unintended consequences, including the elimination of millions of acres of conservation land.”

Indeed, The AP discovered, “Since its introduction, that ethanol mandate has led to a consequence the government didn’t predict: a steep rise in the price of corn that encouraged farmers to plant more corn, including on land that had been set aside for conservation. Across the United States, 6.5 million acres of conservation land have been lost, while nearly 19 million new acres of corn have been planted.”

Finally, there is growing evidence that the mandate reduces greenhouse gas emissions much less than originally forecast, if indeed at all.

In the years since the ethanol mandate passed, U.S. oil and gas production has soared, reducing fears that this country could be held hostage to the dictates of foreign petrostates. In short, much of the rationale for ethanol has either melted away or been overtaken by new data and unintended consequences. It’s time for a hard look by Congress at the entire program.

And it’s time for the EPA to follow the law and weigh in with its own conclusions regarding ethanol rather than continue to sit on the sidelines.

To send a letter to the editor about this article, submit online or check out our guidelines for how to submit by e-mail or mail.