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Renewable fuel standard: Are we nearing a compromise on ethanol?

The Environmental Protection Agency's mandate on biofuels has stirred strong opinions from farmers, renewable fuelmakers, and traditional oil companies. Is there room for compromise? 

By Geoffrey StylesGuest blogger / October 14, 2013

Corn is shown in a field near Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Nati Harnik/AP/File

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Disagreement, But The Outline of A Compromise

Yesterday I watched the livestream of a National Journal’s event, “Biofuels Mandate: Defend, Reform, or Repeal” from Washington, DC. I encourage you to skim through the replay. The session highlighted a wide range of views concerning the US Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS), including those of the corn ethanol and advanced biofuels industries, poultry growers, chain restaurants, environmentalists, and small engine manufacturers. Although these broke down pretty sharply along pro- and anti-RFS lines, I thought I detected hints of the kind of compromise that might resolve this issue. I’d like to focus on the elements of such a deal, rather than rehashing the positions of all of the participants, with one necessary exception.

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The Requirement for Reform

The most disappointing contributions to the discussion occurred during the interview with Representative Steve King (R, IA) by National Journal’s Amy Harder. If we accept Mr. King’s perspective, we should embrace the RFS as being as relevant today as when it was conceived, with no changes required. That flies in the face of the serious market distortions now manifesting in the “blend wall” at 10% ethanol content in gasoline. Among other things, Mr. King claimed that a 2008 reduction of $0.06 per gallon in the now-expired ethanol blenders credit brought the expansion of the corn ethanol industry to a standstill. The industry’s own statistics tell a very different story, with US ethanol production capacity having grown by a further 86% since that point.

Rep. King also characterized “food vs. fuel” concerns as a bumper sticker issue, with no basis in fact. That issue might be controversial, but it is far too substantive to dismiss so cavalierly. The latest evidence of that is a vote by the European Parliament to cap the contribution of conventional biofuel — ethanol and biodiesel derived from food crops — at 6% of transportation energy out of a 2020 target of 10%, based on concerns about sustainability and competition with food. It seemed fairly clear that the Congressman views the RFS more as a farm support measure than an energy program. 

Finding Common Ground

The only one of Mr. King’s comments that seemed to find traction with the other pro-RFS panelists was his odd suggestion that without a mandate for biofuels, the only federal mandate in place would be one for petroleum-based fuels. Certainly, gasoline and diesel have advantages in terms of infrastructure, energy density and the legacy fleet, but he appeared to have something else in mind. From the way others picked up on this, perhaps it was his earlier reference to the tax benefits that conventional fuel producers have long enjoyed. This is the first and easiest element on which to compromise.

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