Nearly 10 years have passed since the federal government imposed a national mandate requiring gasoline be blended with ethanol. At that time, President George W. Bush claimed the United States was addicted to oil and that biofuels, especially ethanol produced from corn, offered an important way to bring down gasoline prices while weaning the nation off of foreign sources of oil and supporting economic development in rural America.
As a farm kid about to graduate from high school in rural Wisconsin at the time, ethanol sounded like a good idea to me. A decade later, it’s clear the program will never achieve those results, and Congress should end the mandate.
The ethanol mandate, more commonly known as the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), is developed and administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the same regulatory body that wants to regulate farm dust and classify small wetlands, temporary runoff streams, and ditches near farm fields as navigable “Waters of the United States” to increase its regulatory control. Like other government decrees, the ethanol mandate imposes onerous regulations on property owners and increases costs for consumers. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the ethanol mandate will increase fuel costs for drivers by 4 to 9 percent in 2017.
In addition to increasing costs, RFS hasn’t made energy independence a realistic option. Most of the farmers I know are very independent people, prioritizing hard work and self-reliance, which is why using ethanol to replace foreign oil appealed to many of us. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), however, the United States consumes about 19 million barrels of petroleum products per day, including gasoline, diesel fuel, and biofuels. In all of 2014, the United States used about 340 million barrels of biofuels, meaning these fuels provided the equivalent of about 18 days of the nation’s supply.
While providing only about 5 percent of the fuel we use, ethanol eats up about 40 percent of the nation’s corn crop. Even if the United States doubled the amount of ethanol used for fuel, which it can’t do because most cars are not designed to handle fuel with more than 10 percent ethanol, America would still only replace the equivalent of about one month of oil, and it would consume 80 percent of the corn crop at current production rates.
Proponents of ethanol championed it as a way of reducing our use of foreign oil, but the ethanol mandate makes little sense now that hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, has nearly doubled oil production in the United States, making us the largest oil producer in the world.
Fracking has done significantly more to increase America’s energy security, without mandates, than we could ever hope to achieve through use of ethanol.
The federal government has tried subsidizing and mandating ethanol, but it still can’t compete with other sources of fuel in terms of price and quantity. It’s clear ethanol was just another case of the government picking winners and losers, and as with Solyndra, the failed solar power company that cost U.S. taxpayers more than half a billion dollars before going belly-up, the government backed a very expensive loser.
If advocates of family farms want to be taken seriously when we object to government mandates, such as expanding the powers of EPA over puddles or proposed U.S. Department of Labor rules to limit the types of work kids can do on their uncle’s farm, we have to advocate ending existing mandates that don’t make sense, even if they appear to benefit agriculture in the short term. Both farmers and the nation will be better off if we end the ethanol mandate.