By John DeCicco
Almost 15 years later, in spite of the mandate and billions of dollars in federal support, cellulosic ethanol has flopped . Total production of liquid cellulosic biofuels has recently hovered around 10 million gallons per year – a tiny fraction of the 16 billion gallons that the RFS calls for producing in 2022. Technical challenges have proved to be more daunting than proponents claimed.
Environmentally speaking, I see the cellulosic failure as a relief. If the technology were to succeed, I believe it would likely unleash an even more aggressive global expansion of industrial agriculture – large-scale farms that raise only one or two crops and rely on highly mechanized methods with intensive chemical fertilizer and pesticide use. Some such risk remains as petroleum refiners invest in bio-based diesel production and producers modify corn ethanol facilities to produce biojet fuel .Ripple effects on lands and Indigenous people
Today the vast majority of biofuels are made from crops like corn and soybeans that also are used for food and animal feed. Global markets for major commodity crops are closely coupled, so increased demand for biofuel production drives up their prices globally.
This price pressure amplifies deforestation and land-grabbing in locations from Brazil to Thailand . The Renewable Fuel Standard thus aggravates displacement of Indigenous communities , destruction of peatlands and similar harms along agricultural frontiers worldwide, mainly in developing countries.
Some researchers have found that adverse effects of biofuel production on land use, crop prices and climate are much smaller than previously estimated . Nevertheless, the uncertainties surrounding land use change and net effects on CO2 emissions are enormous. The complex modeling of biofuel-related commodity markets and land utilization is impossible to verify, as it extrapolates effects across the globe and into the future.
Rather than biofuels, a much better way to address transportation-related CO2 emissions is through improving efficiency, particularly raising gasoline vehicle fuel economy while electric cars continue to advance.
A stool with two weak legs
What can we conclude from 16 years of the RFS? As I see it, two of its three policy legs are now quite wobbly: Its energy security rationale is largely moot, and its climate rationale has proved false.
Nevertheless, key agricultural interests strongly support the program and may be able to prop it up indefinitely. Indeed, as some commentators have observed, the biofuel mandate has become another agribusiness entitlement . Taxpayers probably would have to pay dearly in a deal to repeal the RFS. For the sake of the planet, it would be a cost worth paying.
John DeCicco is a research professor emeritus at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. This was first published by The Conversation — “The US biofuel mandate helps farmers, but does little for energy security and harms the environment.”