Flaws in Renewable Fuel Standard aren’t going away

Source: By THE Oklahoman Editorial Board • Posted: Tuesday, December 20, 2016

THE election of Donald Trump has fueled hope for regulatory rollback in many areas where the federal government has overreached during the past eight years. One change that should happen, if Congress will show some wisdom, is repeal of the Renewable Fuel Standard.

The problems with this law, which mandates ever-increasing use of biofuels, have long been known, but that reality was reinforced at a recent Senate hearing led by Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City.

The law was enacted in 2005 to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The first goal was achieved not through the fuel standard, but thanks to the hydraulic fracturing revolution. And as for greenhouse gas emissions, recent research concludes the fuel standard may actually be counterproductive.

The Government Accountability Office spent 19 months conducting an independent analysis of the RFS. Its conclusions should not be ignored by lawmakers.

In testimony before the Senate subcommittee, Frank Rusco, director of natural resources and environment for the GAO, noted several problems with the fuel standard.

The main impact of the RFS has been to increase the use of ethanol in gasoline. Yet the law has reached the limits of what can feasibly be done on that front. The law originally expected other advanced biofuels to represent a significantly larger share of the market, but that hasn’t happened.

One of the major impediments to increased use of advanced biofuels other than ethanol is simple: They cost too much. Traditional fossil fuel remains far less expensive than does advanced biofuel.

As a result, federal officials have tried to advance the goals of the renewable fuel law through greater use of ethanol. But fuel containing more than 10 percent ethanol is incompatible with most existing cars and fueling infrastructure.

In some instances, the fuel standard actually boosts greenhouse gas emissions. Rusco told lawmakers that “some experts told us that the RFS creates a perverse incentive to import Brazilian sugarcane ethanol. Specifically, because sugarcane ethanol qualifies as an advanced biofuel, it is more profitable to import this fuel than to domestically produce advanced biofuels. According to these experts, the import of sugarcane ethanol, which occurs to meet RFS requirements, causes significant greenhouse gas emissions as a result of fuel burned during shipping.”

Put simply, the renewable fuel standard relies on methods that aren’t feasible (advanced biofuels) to address at least one problem that is being better addressed through other means (reducing foreign oil dependence) while relying on other methods (ethanol fuel) that aren’t particularly feasible and can undermine the law’s secondary goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

As Lankford noted, “The ethanol Renewable Fuel Standard mandates have been unrealistic from the start … The RFS program isn’t meeting the greenhouse gas emission goals, it is unsustainable, and it yields few benefits, while it has inflicted substantial costs on consumers. The renewable fuel standard mandate simply doesn’t work.”

Lankford argues it’s time for Congress to face reality and do away with the standard. Here’s hoping a new administration will be more willing to admit the obvious.