Reforming The Corn-Ethanol Mandate
The Planning and Conservation League (PCL) is working with our partners at the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) to reform the corn-ethanol mandate in the federal renewable fuels standard. The mandate was originally intended to help reduce our reliance on imported oil, but unintended consequences have led to both habitat destruction and economic chaos. NWF has taken the national lead in efforts to reform the mandate and PCL is leading the charge here in California. NWF released the report Fueling Destruction: The Unintended Consequences of the Renewable Fuels Standard (corn-ethanol mandate) on Land, Water, and Wildlife detailing the national impacts and pointing the way to positive reform in December of 2016 and PCL is working to educate decision makers and the media about the impacts here in the Golden State.
California’s commercial bee colonies need time off from pollinating commercial crops to forage on a wide variety of native plants and grasses to maintain a healthy and thriving colony. Many of California’s commercial bee keepers take their hives to native grasslands in the Great Plains and Midwest to rest in the summer, a habitat that is disappearing faster than any other ecosystem in North America.
Ninety percent of the native grasslands in America have been destroyed by agriculture or development. Additional grasslands get plowed up every year, spurred in no small part by the corn-ethanol mandate in the renewable fuel standard. This standard requires the use of increasing amounts of biofuels made from soybeans and other crops threatening even more habitat loss.
U.S. Senators from corn-producing states have been pulling out all the stops to find a way to waive clean air regulations so that a blend of gasoline with even more corn-ethanol called E15 Gasoline can be sold nationwide during the summer months. That’s a horrible idea. In warmer summer months, ethanol increases the amount of ground-level ozone, which we call smog, generated by gasoline. In addition to making the air hazy, smog is a lung irritant that contributes to asthma and other breathing trouble. The vapors that it forms are also potentially carcinogenic.
Studies have clearly shown that increased usage of ethanol in gasoline leads to higher smog levels, particularly in heavily populated areas. Again, higher ozone levels are associated with asthma and other respiratory problems, especially among children and the elderly. Waiving clean air regulations to allow increase sales of E15 will only lead to more bad air days, more trips to the emergency room, and more misery for many Americans.
Recognizing that smog is dangerous to human health, the Clean Air Act directs the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate gasoline emissions and how readily they generate the pollutant in summer months. Since ethanol is used to enhance fuel performance, blends up to E10 have been granted a waiver of these rules and can be sold year round.
Congress can change the law this year to protect and restore grassland and other wildlife habitat—not destroy it—while continuing to benefit farmers and the agriculture economy. But your members need to hear about the damage being done to bees and our air quality, or they may not make the needed changes. Please speak out now.
Please do this one thing today to help protect our bees and our air quality by taking action below.
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PCL & NWF are also looking for volunteers to help us generate letters to California newspapers, meetings with members of congress, and help to share the word that we need to protect our air, our bees, and so much more being impacted by the corn-ethanol mandate.
We are also looking for stories from you about how the corn-ethanol mandate has impacted you. The mandate has led to higher feed prices for livestock, problems with small engines (boats, lawn mowers, jet skis), air pollution, loss of commercial bee hives, and more – we are looking to share these impacts with members of congress, the media, and your fellow Californians.
When Congress created the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), it was with the worthy intent of incentivizing home grown, renewable fuels that reduce America’s dependence on fossil fuels and decrease the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, it has become clear that the RFS has had unintended consequences on the landscape that have been devastating for wildlife and wildlife habitat, and may even be undermining its own stated goals.1 A nationwide study from researchers from the University of Wisconsin, for instance, found that over 7.3 million acres of land — mostly grasslands — were converted to crop production between 2008 and 2012.2 While the RFS alone did not cause these changes, it was one the biggest drivers that led to the massive destruction of habitat on the landscape.3
While the increased planting of corn for ethanol and soy for biodiesel has led to habitat destruction and water quality impacts, the next generation of cellulosic biofuels (those made from grasses, trees, and wastes) could result in much more positive environmental outcomes. Given that the RFS as currently constructed has not led to the expansion of cellulosic biofuels at nearly the pace envisioned by the law’s backers, changes must be made to place greater emphasis on supporting the development of these promising but still developing technologies and feedstocks, while de-emphasizing the production of ethanol and biodiesel and trying to mitigate their effects on the landscape. In recognition of the impacts to soil, water, and wildlife, there must be meaningful enforcement or strengthening of the habitat safeguards that are currently in the RFS but are not being implemented – as well as greater commitment to habitat conservation in order to mitigate the negative effects of the expanded, intensified agriculture that has been fueled, in part, by the RFS mandate. In order to achieve these conservation goals, an RFS reform package should encompass the following basic principles.
In its current form, the Renewable Fuel Standard provides incentives to convert natural areas and wildlife habitat to large corporate farms.
- Since the ethanol mandate was enacted, more than 7 million acres of wildlife habitat and natural areas have been converted to crops, mostly corn for ethanol.
- Fewer than 5 percent of native grasslands remain.
- Ecologically important areas like the Prairie Potholes region – one of the prime habitat for ducks across the country – have seen the most intensive destruction of habitat.
This has led to water pollution – reducing supply and threatening public health – and destruction of habitat for wildlife and important pollinators such as bees and butterflies.
- Expanded and intensified farming means more pesticides, chemical fertilizers and erosion.
- Farm run-off has fueled serious impacts like toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie, which in 2014 poisoned drinking water for more than 400,000 people for three days.
- Farm run-off has also contributed to Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone,” an area unfit for most aquatic life.
- Monarch butterfly populations have declined almost 90 percent, due in large part to loss of grassland habitat.
- Irrigation – often in marginal farm land – depletes aquifers faster than they can replenish, threatening water supplies.
There is a set of common-sense reforms that work for family farmers to protect public health and the environment – keeping us moving forward on our clean fuel goals the right way. The Planning and Conservation League along with our partners at the National Wildlife Federation and others are seeking to:
- Promote biofuels made from sources other than corn.
- Charge a small fee to oil companies and refiners to fund habitat restoration and conservation.
- Prohibit converting native wildlife habitat into cropland to grow corn for ethanol, a law already on the books.
- Limit the share of ethanol made from corn that can be used to meet renewable fuel targets.
Reforming the Corn-Ethanol Mandate
We must reform the federal corn-ethanol mandate to protect clean water and public health. In its current form, the RFS provides incentives to convert natural areas and wildlife habitat to large corporate farms growing GMO corn. This has led to water pollution – reducing supply and threatening public health – and destruction of habitat for wildlife and important pollinators such as bees and butterflies. There is a set of common-sense reforms that work for family farmers to protect public health and the environment – keeping us moving forward on our clean fuel goals the right way.
Environmental Principles for reform of the corn-ethanol mandate in the RFS
The corn ethanol mandate needs to be ramped down – or at the very least capped at current levels and corn should not be allowed to qualify for the advanced biofuels pool.
A limit should be placed on food-based biodiesel, and it should not be allowed to fill the conventional pool.
Cellulosic ethanol and advanced biofuels should receive the appropriate incentives to truly foster the development and production of next generation fuels.
The RFS should effectively prohibit the future conversion of native habitat to cropland and disallow any fuels produced on land brought into production after the law’s 2007 passage, from qualifying for credit.
In order to mitigate the vast amount of wildlife habitat that has been lost on the landscape (due in large part to the expansion of corn for ethanol), a conservation mitigation fund to support habitat and water quality restoration and conservation should be linked to the RFS.
An RFS reform effort must be targeted solely to the renewable fuels mandate and not used as an excuse to make broader changes to the Clean Air Act.
The law should be clarified to prohibit invasive or noxious plants cultivated and made into biofuels from meeting the mandate.
1 Searchinger et al, 2008. Science. “Use of US Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land-Use Change.”
2 Lark, et al, 2015. “Cropland expansion outpaces agricultural and biofuel policies in the United States.” Environmental Research Letters 10, 4.
3 Economic Research Service. http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/farm-economy/bioenergy/findings.aspx