Report: U.S. Push for Ethanol is Accelerating Climate Change

Mar 15, 2019

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The push for biofuels is causing serious environmental damage, according to a new report.

The Renewable Fuel Standard was intended to reduce reliance on oil imports and cut air pollution. It requires that all gasoline for transportation sold in the United States contain at least 10 percent ethanol. However, the report from the National Wildlife Federation said that has led to converting more than 1.6 million acres of non-farm land to corn and soybean production and is accelerating the climate change already affecting coastal states such as New Jersey.

Aaron Smith, a professor of agricultural resources and economics at the University of California-Davis, said land conversion brings a host of serious environmental consequences. "That means that you are converting habitat that may have been occupied by various species into cropland," he said. "That means you're using more water, using more nitrogen, both of which contribute to pollution."

Supporters of the Renewable Fuel Standard have said it has reduced oil imports and boosted farm income, but critics have noted that the land-use changes are releasing 14 million metric tons of carbon a year, accelerating climate change. When the standard was established in 2007, said David DeGennaro, agriculture policy specialist for the National Wildlife Federation, corn and soybeans were supposed to be bridges to the development of cleaner fuels. "The original law had envisioned that we would start using an array of other things, such as grasses or wood waste or waste oils, that wouldn't have the same impact on the landscape," he said, "but that transition has never occurred."

In addition to converting new cropland to corn and soybeans, the report said, the standard led farmers to switch existing cropland to corn on almost 7 million acres a year between 2008 and 2016. DeGennaro said the Environmental Protection Agency must reset the standard for ethanol in gasoline by Nov. 30. "They could use that as a real opportunity to improve the program and move it in the right direction," he said, "or they could double down and say we haven't been getting those other fuels, so we're just going to focus on the corn- and soy-based fuels, and that would be a real step backward."

The EPA's proposal for a new standard is expected to be released this spring. The report is online at ethanol.nwf.org.