Opinion: Ethanol still the answer to America’s Renewable Fuel Standard

Source: By Ernie Shea, 25x25, Baltimore Sun • Posted: Friday, September 21, 2012

Corn prices have reached record highs as a result of this summer’s devastating drought, and it hasn’t taken long for some to use the crisis as leverage for their own political agendas — namely, the opposition to domestic renewable fuel.

The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which requires that a certain portion of America’s fuel come from homegrown, renewable sources, is under attack. The standard passed Congress with bipartisan support in 2007 in order to reduce foreign oil imports, create jobs and lower the cost of gasoline. But some have lost sight of these long-term goals due to short-term thinking as a result of the drought. Several governors have asked for a waiver of the required volumes of fuel under the RFS, including Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, and the Environmental Protection Agency has until mid-November to decide. If you look at the facts, it’s plain to see that the RFS should be left alone.

The RFS does four things very well. First, it creates jobs. No matter what, Americans will need fuel. And there are a lot of jobs at stake in that process. If we end the RFS, we might as well send those jobs off to Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Supporting renewable fuels means that when Americans fill up their tanks, they are supporting nearly 500,000 homegrown jobs.

Second, renewable fuels make the U.S. more energy independent. Americans overwhelmingly support increasing domestic energy production, and in the past several years, the U.S. has indeed produced an increasingly larger share of its own energy. This trend has loosened the grip unstable regimes have on our country and made us safer at home. Getting rid of the RFS would be a big step in the wrong direction. Renewable fuels should remain a priority for leaders today.

Third, contrary to opponents’ claims, the RFS has a minimal impact on food production. Commercial-scale biofuel plants using nonfood feedstocks are coming online after significant investment. The biofuels from these operations do not utilize the corn that we eat, feed to livestock or export. Furthermore, clean air standards require that some fuel burn cleaner than standard gasoline (roughly 30 percent of all gas stations are required to have cleaner-burning fuel), so biofuels still must be produced, even without the RFS.

Last but not least, the RFS is a huge help to consumers at the gas pump. In 2011, ethanol reduced the price of gasoline by an average of $1.09 per gallon. That makes a big difference for the vast majority of Americans who are already hurting from the lagging economic recovery. If we can keep prices down at the pump, shouldn’t we?

Opponents of the RFS argue that because our corn crop was not strong this year as a result of the drought, we should divert corn used for ethanol into our food production system. It follows, they argue, that this can only happen if we remove the biofuel standards that require renewable fuel production. The problem with that line of reasoning, and one of the reasons that the RFS is such a smart piece of legislation, is that the standard has a significant amount of flexibility built into it for this exact type of situation. With 2.4 billion gallons worth of biofuel credits and 18.49 million barrels of surplus ethanol, we can weather this storm without any waivers while keeping ourselves on track to meet the long-term goals outlined in the RFS. The waiver is simply unnecessary.

The RFS is common sense. We should be looking to create jobs, increase energy independence and save Americans money. The RFS has fulfilled those critical functions, and it will continue to do so in the months and years to come. There’s hardly a clearer choice for the federal government to make: The EPA should keep the RFS in place.

Ernest Shea (eshea@25×25.org), a Lutherville resident and former Maryland assistant secretary of agriculture, is president of Natural Resource Solutions LLC and project coordinator of the 25×25 Alliance, a coalition committed to America securing 25 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025.