And those developments don’t yet touch on the twin factors that, without even considering supply and demand, are enough to refute the rationale for the RFS in the first place.
An unsustainable policy
First of all, corn-based ethanol doesn’t deliver a heck of a lot of additional energy. When the total inputs required to grow a bushel of corn, transport it to a processing plant, produce the ethanol, transport, blend and distribute the resulting fuel, the best estimates calculate a net energy gain of only 25 percent to 30 percent. Other sources—critics, to be sure, of the very concept of growing an edible food crop only to burn it up in our cars and trucks—claim that the net energy gain is even smaller, maybe negligible.
Not surprisingly, the ethanol mandate has bolstered the price of corn and created something of a windfall for Midwestern farmers. Thus, it’s understandable when Martin Barbre, president of the National Corn Growers Association, argued that reducing the RFS “would be devastating for family farmers and the entire rural economy.”
Or when Sen. Debbie Stabinow (D-Minn.), chairperson of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, released a statement noting that, “The so-called ‘blend wall’ is a crisis manufactured by the oil industry,” and that lowering the RFS “would cost thousands of good-paying, clean energy jobs.”
You expect heated rhetoric from politicians with farm-country constituents or trade-group officials whose members are benefiting from government policies that drive up the price of their crops.
None of those statements distracts from the reality here: Taking perhaps our single most important food and feed crop and essentially distilling it into an inefficient liquid fuel that neither solves our energy supply issues crisis nor puts the country on the road to energy independence—while it drives up costs for producers and food prices for consumers—isn’t exactly a stroke of policy genius.
Understandably, there are stakeholders who benefit handsomely from the federal ethanol mandate, and they won’t surrender without a hellacious struggle. But at this juncture, it ought to be clear where our energy policies need to be focused.
We need to invest on developing higher efficiency feedstocks for biofuel production, advance cellulosic energy research and ramp up production of hybrid and/or fully electric vehicles that can eventually be powered by electricity from hydro, solar, wind turbine, thermal, biomass and even tidal energy sources.
To keep growing massive amounts of corn that end up feeding our cars, not our families, is ludicrous, to say the least.
Just don’t expect the ethanol boosters to stop talking up their golden goose anytime soon.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.