Vermont’s Congressman Outlines Renewable Fuel Standard Reforms

Source: By PAT BRADLEY, WAMC • Posted: Monday, December 19, 2016

Congressman Peter Welch was joined by a group of Vermont environmentalists Tuesday to highlight what they see as a need for revisions in the Renewable Fuel Standard, a national policy that requires corn ethanol be mixed into fuels.

The Renewable Fuel Standard, or RFS, was passed during the Bush administration to reduce carbon emissions by creating fuel out of corn.  It initially included a mandate that 10 percent of each gallon of fuel include corn ethanol.  A tariff was included to prevent competition along with a production  tax subsidy.

Congressman Peter Welch, a Democrat, says the law resulted in a number of unintended consequences and is a well-intentioned flop.   “It really resulted in an enormous increase in production of corn in the Corn Belt. So much so that a lot of conservation land was turned into producing land. It largely eliminated bird habitat in many of the Midwest corn states. Secondly it turns out that the carbon emissions that go along with producing corn as fuel exceeded what regular gasoline would produce. So it didn’t reduce carbon emissions. The other collateral damage that was really significant for farmers in Vermont is that it increased the price of grain.”

A requirement that the corn ethanol blend increase to 15 percent per gallon was delayed last year. Welch has proposed a bill to eliminate the corn ethanol mix from fuel altogether.   “The law still has us headed towards a 15-percent ethanol unless this bipartisan legislation passes. Now I have another bill that would eliminate the corn ethanol mandate altogether but preserve the opportunities to do advanced cellulosic because cellulosic potential as a fuel is good. It just doesn’t work with corn.”

The Renewable Fuel Standard was implemented in 2005.  National Wildlife Federation Regional Representative Zach Cockrum notes that there are now 90 million acres of corn in production, 40 percent for corn ethanol.  “That means it’s driven a conversion of conservation lands to agricultural production upwards of seven million acres which is the size of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. So we’re talking about a significant amount of land that’s been changed to be used for corn. Where we’ve seen that land conversion farmers are now planting all the way up to stream edges and they’ve taken out important riparian habitat that was great for birds and ducks and other wildlife. But it also was a filter that took nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen out of the runoff. As the congressman said this standard was well intended but it’s not living up to its intentions.”

Lake Champlain International Executive Director James Ehlers finds corn a “horrible” choice for a biofuel base and is pleased that Congressman Welch is attempting to reform the federal ethanol mandate.   “The great irony from my point of view is there are other fuel sources, other biofuel sources, algae being predominate among them. We find it very interesting that we would choose to rely on corn which creates more algal problems than it solves instead of exploring and investing in accelerating algal biofuel opportunities.”

The National Wildlife Federation will release a new study this week outlining the environmental impacts of the Renewable Fuel Standard.