Study links RFS to increased soil erosion, chemical use

Source: Marc Heller, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, June 10, 2016

Bigger corn plantings tied to the federal renewable fuel standard are increasing soil erosion, according to a study released today.

Annual erosion will grow from 807 million tons of soil in 2008 to 816 million tons in 2016, according to the study by Daniel De La Torre Ugarte of the University of Tennessee, a projected increase that he attributed to increased plantings of corn spurred by the RFS.

Ugarte’s study was released by critics of the RFS a day before U.S. EPA’s scheduled public hearing on proposed renewable fuel levels for 2017. Ethanol supporters, including Growth Energy, have criticized his prior work — also commissioned by the American Council for Capital Formation — as being shaped by the petroleum industry’s agenda.

Updating an earlier study that was also critical of the RFS’s effects, Ugarte said soil erosion could be greatly reduced by eliminating the RFS or by replacing corn-based ethanol with cellulosic ethanol from crops that are better at holding the soil in place.

According to the study, replacing corn ethanol with cellulosic ethanol would have reduced erosion by 33.7 percent annually between 2008 and 2016. With no RFS at all, erosion would have improved by 13.2 percent, he said.

If no RFS were in place, fertilizer and chemical consumption on farms would have declined, the study said, as farmers replaced corn with wheat and soybeans. Fertilizer use would have been 4.4 percent less, while other chemical use would have been 2.8 percent less, according to the study.

On the other hand, farmers would have used more fertilizer to replace corn with crops for cellulosic ethanol, Ugarte found. That’s because nutrients removed from the soil would have to be replaced, he said. In addition, he said, if more land is devoted to crops for cellulosic ethanol, remaining hayfields and pasture might need more fertilizing to support livestock.

Without the RFS, demand for corn ethanol would have been 4.34 billion gallons in 2014, or about 30 percent of the actual demand, Ugarte said.

Broadly, the study said, the RFS hasn’t reached stated goals of improving air quality, reducing greenhouse emissions, helping rural communities economically and reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

“Ultimately, it is clear that the RFS continues to fall short of meeting its policy objectives — a struggle that has existed for more than ten years,” Ugarte wrote, adding that he believes policies should focus on boosting advanced biofuels over the next decade “aimed at achieving meaningful environmental and greater fuel diversity benefits.”

The American Council for Capital Formation, a group opposed to the RFS, released the study and praised it in a news release, calling the RFS “corporate welfare.”

The study’s downbeat assessment of the RFS contrasts with testimony for today’s EPA hearing released by the Renewable Fuels Association, which called it a “tremendous success.”

“It has stimulated dramatic growth in the domestic production of renewable fuels, revitalized rural communities across the country, reduced emissions of greenhouse gases and harmful tailpipe pollutants, and lowered consumer fuel prices,” said RFA President and CEO Bob Dinneen.

EPA is taking testimony today in Kansas City, Mo., on its proposed 2017 renewable fuel levels, which would increase from this year but remain below levels mandated by Congress in the RFS law.