This morning I attended a briefing on “The Renewable Fuel Standard: Pitfalls, Challenges, and the Need for Congressional Action in 2013.” Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense moderated a panel of six experts. Although each expert spotlighted a different set of harms arising from the RFS, reflecting the core concern of his or her organization, this was a team effort, with panelists frequently affirming each other’s key points. Collectively, they made a strong case that the RFS is a “costly failure.” The briefing’s purpose was to demonstrate the need for reform rather than outline a specific reform agenda. Panelists nonetheless agreed that, at a minimum, Congress should scale back the RFS blending targets for corn ethanol.
Kristin Sundell of ActionAid explained how the RFS exacerbates world hunger, undermining U.S. foreign aid and international security objectives. The RFS diverts 15% of the world corn supply from food to fuel, putting upward pressure on food prices. A recent Tufts University study estimates that U.S. ethanol expansion during the past 6 years cost developing countries more than $5.5 billion in higher prices for corn imports. In Guatemala, the additional expense ($28 million) in 2011 effectively cancelled out all U.S. food aid and agricultural assistance for that year. Food price spikes, partly due to the RFS, were a factor in the recent turmoil in the Middle East. “Congress can’t control the weather, but they can control misguided energy policies that could cause a global food crisis,” Sundell said.
Kristin Wilcox of the American Frozen Food Institute discussed the RFS’s impact on food consumers. Corn is both the chief animal feed and an ingredient in about 75% of all frozen foods. Consequently, RFS-induced increases in corn prices drive up “the cost of producing a wide range of foods and leads to higher food bills for consumers.” In addition, when corn prices go up, so do the prices of other commodities that compete with corn such as wheat and soybeans. “Our position is very simple,” Wilcox said: “food should be used to fuel bodies, not vehicle engines.” She concluded: “Trying to change the price at the pump should not burden consumers with increased prices in the grocery check out aisle.”
Actually, as Geoff Moody of the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers pointed out, the RFS aggravates rather than alleviates pain at the pump. Graphs from the Energy Information Administration show that biofuels are more expensive than gasoline on an energy-content (per-mile) basis. The higher the ethanol blend, the more expensive it is to drive, which is why fewer than 4% of flex-fuel vehicle owners fill up with E85 (motor fuel blended with 85% ethanol).
Moody’s major point was that the RFS is becoming increasingly unworkable. Already the 135 billion gallon U.S. motor fuel market is nearly saturated with E10. By 2022, U.S. motor fuel consumption is projected to be about 25% lower than Congress assumed when it expanded the RFS in 2007. If Congress does not revise the RFS, refiners will have to sell E20 or higher, but the existing retail infrastructure is not equipped to handle blends higher than E10. A typical service station may clear a profit of only $45,000 on motor fuel sales, but replacing pumps and storage tanks to handle higher blends can cost $50,000 to $200,000.
Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group discussed the RFS program’s environmental impacts, especially changes in land use. From 2008 to 2011, high crop prices and crop subsidies contributed to the conversion of 23 million acres of wetlands and grasslands, an area the size of Indiana. About 8.4 million acres were converted to corn production. “We have lost more wetlands and grasslands in the last four years than we have in the last 40 years,” Faber said. If lawmakers knew in 2007 what we now know about the RFS’s many serious unintended consequences, they would not have enacted the program, Faber opined.
Tom Elam of Farm Econ LLC discussed the RFS program’s impacts on livestock producers and meat and poultry consumers. Since Congress created the RFS in 2005, annual feed costs have increased by $8.8 billion for chicken producers and $1.9 billion for turkey producers. Consequences of those higher costs include an 8 billion pound decline in poultry production, eight major bankruptcies, a half billion dollar loss in farm income, and higher prices for consumers.
Retail broiler prices, for example, increased from $1.74/lb in 2005 to $1.97/lb in December 2012. Turkey prices similarly rose from $1.07/lb in 2005 to $1.80/lb in early 2012. Beef and pork prices too rose along with feed costs, with the result that U.S. per capita meat and poultry consumption declined by about 10% since 2008.
The RFS may be good for corn farmers, but it fosters economic inefficiency. For every $1 of added ethanol production, food production costs increased $2.89. In other words, food producers bear a cost “more than twice the value of the ethanol created.”
Jim Currie of the National Marine Manufacturers Association explained the perils of E15 to the $72 billion per year U.S. recreational boating industry. Boats and other small gasoline-powered engines are designed to run on motor fuels blended with 10% ethanol or less. Consequently, “anything above E10 poses serious problems, including performance issues like stalling, corrosion leading to oil or fuel leaks, increased emissions and damaged valves, rubber fuel lines and gaskets.”
Higher blends are trouble for two reasons. First, ethanol is a solvent and at increased concentrations eats away at engine components. Second, ethanol is an oxygenate, and the higher the oxygen content of a fuel, the hotter the burn. Tests supervised by the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab prove “time and time again that marine engines and, by extrapolation, other types of engines, simply cannot tolerate the high levels of additional oxygen that this fuel blend forces into the engine.” Currie presented lab test photos of such engine damage (pp. 3-7 of this Power Point).
Valve rupture from E15
Touching on the potential risks E15 poses to automobiles, he quoted the AAA’s statement of last December: “Only about 12 million out of the more than 240 million light-duty vehicles on the roads today are approved by manufacturers to use E15 gasoline.”
Currie’s conclusion drew applause from the Hill crowd:
As I am the last presenter today, let me offer a hypothetical scenario, based on what you have heard. Suppose an organization approached the Hill today and said, “We have a great idea for a new policy. It will largely benefit a small number of people in one part of the country, and members of Congress from there will support it wholeheartedly. The downside is that it will hurt the environment; and conservation practices; and will drive up food costs; and hurt people in developing countries; and will potentially damage every small engine in the country, including those in motorcycles and snowmobiles and ATVs and lawnmowers and generators; and it will damage boat engines; and it will potentially damage most automobile engines and will void your engine warranty if you use it. But we want you to enact a law requiring the American consumer to use it anyway.” That’s where we are today, and we think this law needs to be changed.