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.” [click to continue…]
Today, FarmEcon LLC released RFS, Fuel and Food Prices, and the Need for Statutory Flexibility, a study of ethanol’s impact on food and fuel prices. FarmEcon prepared the study for the American Meat Institute, California Dairies Inc., Milk Producers Council, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Chicken Council, National Pork Producers Council, and National Turkey Federation.
The study argues that the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), commonly known as the ethanol mandate, is detrimental to both non-ethanol industry corn users and food and fuel consumers. The program should therefore be reformed. The RFS has “destabilized corn and ethanol prices by offering an almost risk-free demand volume guaranty to the corn-based ethanol industry.” Consequently, food producers who use corn as a feedstock “have been forced to bear a disproportionate share of market and price risk” when corn yields fall and prices rise. This has become painfully obvious in recent weeks as drought conditions in the Midwest depress yields and push corn prices to record highs.
Appropriate reform* would assure food producers “automatic market access” to corn stocks “in the event of a natural disaster and a sharp reduction in corn production.” Ethanol producers should “bear the burden of market adjustments, along with domestic food producers and corn export customers.” The study also recommends that the RFS schedule “be revised to reflect the ethanol industry’s inability to produce commercially viable cellulosic fuels.”
Pretty tame stuff. An argument for flexibility to avoid the RFS’s worst market distortions and the cellulosic farce rather than an abolitionist manifesto. Nonetheless, the study paints a fairly damning picture of the RFS as a whole:
- Increases in ethanol production since 2007 have made little, or no, contribution to U.S. energy supplies, or dependence on foreign crude oil. Rather, those increases have pushed gasoline suplies into the export market.
- Current ethanol policy has increased and destabilized corn and related commodity prices to the detriment of both food and fuel producers. Corn price volatility has more than doubled since 2007.
- Following the late 2007 increase in the RFS, food price inflation relative to all other goods and services accelerated sharply to twice its 2005-2007 rate.
- Post-2007 higher rates of food price inflation are associated with sharp increases in corn, soybean and wheat prices.
- On an energy basis, ethanol has never been priced competitively with gasoline.
- Ethanol production costs and prices have ruled out U.S. ethanol use at levels higher than E10. As a result, we exported 1.2 billion gallons of ethanol in 2011.
- Due to its higher energy cost and negative effect on fuel mileage, ethanol adds to the overall cost of motor fuels. In 2011 the higher cost of ethanol energy compared to gasoline added approximately $14.5 billion, or about 10 cents per gallon, to the cost of U.S. gasoline consumption. Ethanol tax credits (since discontinued) added another 4 cents per gallon. [click to continue…]