As America rushes to generate more renewable electricity, it has become fashionable to fret that solar and wind farms use too much land. But America is also racing to produce more renewable fuels, and they use much, much more land to displace much, much less fossil fuel.
It’s fairly well-known that farm-grown fuels like corn ethanol and soy biodiesel accelerate food inflation and global hunger, but they’re also a disaster for the climate and the environment. And that’s mainly because they’re inefficient land hogs. It takes about 100 acres worth of biofuels to generate as much energy as a single acre of solar panels; worldwide, a land mass larger than California was used to grow under 4 percent of transportation fuel in 2020.
That’s a huge waste of precious land the world needs to store carbon that can stabilize our warming climate and grow crops that can help feed the growing population. The Environmental Protection Agency could help rein in that waste when it updates America’s sweeping mandate encouraging biofuel production later this month. It probably won’t, though, because in Washington, where cornethanolism is one of the last truly bipartisan ideologies, nearly everyone loves to pretend biofuels are green.
America is no longer an agrarian nation, but it remains an article of faith among its political elites that agrarian interests in the heartland require constant handouts. Government support for blending biofuels into U.S. gasoline is often rationalized on the wink-wink-nudge-nudge grounds of reducing reliance on foreign oil or saving the climate, but it’s mainly a way to suck up to farmers and enrich agribusinesses. Like direct payments, countercyclical payments, loan deficiency payments and other U.S. farm programs, biofuel subsidies redistribute tax dollars from the 99 percent of Americans who don’t farm to the roughly 1 percent who do.
What makes corn-based ethanol distinct from most of our other wasteful agricultural giveaways is that it diverts crops from bellies to fuel tanks and uses almost as much fossil fuel — from fertilizers made of natural gas to diesel tractors, industrial refineries and other sources — as the ethanol replaces.
But the more damaging effect of biofuels, first revealed in a 2008 paper in the journal Science, is that they increase greenhouse gas emissions through the conversion of carbon-rich forests, wetlands and grasslands into farmland, expanding our agricultural footprint while shrinking nature’s. That was tragic back when biofuels seemed like the only plausible alternative to planet-broiling gasoline, but it’s inexcusable now that electric vehicles have become better, cleaner and more economical. Biofuels are like a return to the horse-and-buggy era, when farmers had to grow millions of acres of oats and hay for transportation fuel, except now the crops are processed through ethanol plants instead of animals.
By 2050, the world will need to grow an additional 7.4 quadrillion calories every year to fill nearly 10 billion bellies, while ending deforestation and other wilderness destruction to meet the emissions targets in the Paris climate accord. Biofuels make both jobs much harder.
But President Biden, like Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump before him, pledged fealty to ethanol before competing in the Iowa caucus, because ethanol mandates jack up the price of corn and win voters. The presidential candidates John McCain, Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg all retracted their criticisms of biofuels before the Iowa caucus, too. An episode of “The West Wing” captured the dilemma well when a presidential candidate who wanted to break the tradition of wooing Iowa farmers with over-the-top ethanol promises quipped, “It’s practically in the Oxford English Dictionary under ‘pandering.’”
“Bambi would have a better shot of getting elected president of the N.R.A. than you’ll have of getting a single vote in this caucus,” his political aide replied.
As president, Mr. Biden has not yet challenged that logic. Instead, he visited an Iowa ethanol plant last year to boast about the lavish biofuels subsidies in his Inflation Reduction Act, and to announce a new waiver allowing more ethanol to be sold in the summertime to help suppress gas prices.
But his most important decision is still to come: What to do about the Renewable Fuel Standard that has kept the industry afloat since the mid-2000s.
The current standard requires 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol to be blended into U.S. gasoline every year. Since ethanol doesn’t make sense economically without the standard’s lucrative credits, America currently blends about 15 billion gallons a year. The standard was also supposed to mandate 21 billion gallons of so-called advanced biofuels brewed from grasses by 2022, farm wastes and other noncrop materials. But since they are hard to make economical even with the standard’s lucrative credits, only about a quarter of the quota was met in 2022.
The main exception has been 2 billion gallons of soy biodiesel, which Congress designated an advanced biofuel even though it’s made from crops, because Congress courts soybean farmers as slavishly as it does corn farmers. In fact, they’re mostly the same farmers.
But the rules and volumes that Congress created for the Renewable Fuel Standard only extended through 2022, and Mr. Biden’s E.P.A. could easily revise them to advance his climate goals. The agency could limit the standard to biofuels made from leftover restaurant grease, crop residues or other waste products that don’t use farmland. It could create a stricter cap on crop-based biofuels, as Europe has done. Or it could at least tweak its own approach to take land use more seriously in its emissions analyses. Crossing the farm lobby is never easy, but it can be done: Senator Ted Cruz of Texas chose not to kowtow to ethanol producers in the 2016 presidential campaign, and he still won the Iowa Republican caucus.
For now, the E.P.A.’s proposed rule would actually expand soy biodiesel, which is even more land-intensive than corn ethanol. And even though corn ethanol is basically moonshine, an old libation with a century-long history as a fuel, a bipartisan group of House members has also introduced a bill to reclassify corn ethanol as an advanced biofuel so it could finally blow past the 15 billion gallon threshold.
One co-sponsor, Representative Wesley Hunt, a Texas Republican, offered an amusing new justification for ethanol at a time when electric vehicles look like the future of transportation: “Congress must promote programs that encourage the internal combustion engine.” Back when internal combustion engines were new, congressmen with buggy-whip factories in their districts probably supported programs to encourage buggy whips. Change can be tough. Progress doesn’t always benefit everyone equally.
But internal combustion engines don’t need government support, and neither do biofuels. They’re climate nightmares masquerading as climate solutions, and they’re making life harder for some of the poorest people on earth. They’re practically in the Oxford English Dictionary under “counterproductive.”
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