Monday, June 4, 2012

An unheeded warning on ethanol

As concerns about the adverse impacts of expanding biofuel use continue to mount, I can't help but note that a number of policy analysts raised red flags about the issue a decade ago, when proposals to mandate biofuel use began to get legs in Washington. Such was the case for a short position statement opposing an ethanol mandate that I co-wrote while on staff at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

The 9/11 attacks in 2001 shocked U.S. public sentiment in many ways, including a re-awakened concern about energy security and the risks of dependence on foreign oil, as many put it. Policymakers suddenly became much more willing to seriously back petroleum alternatives. Biofuels had long enjoyed a basic level of support, including subsidies established following the 1970's oil crises. Ethanol advocates now saw an opportunity to boost biofuel production in a political climate that made policymakers from both parties happy to intervene in the market as a way to show the public that they were taking action on energy security.

Bills to mandate ethanol in gasoline were introduced early in 2002. The policy immediately found support, especially in the Senate where heartland votes easily overcame the skepticism of members from the left and right coasts.

A number of environmental organizations viewed biofuels as a crucial renewable alternative to petroleum-based gasoline. Although the net benefits of corn ethanol were always questioned, some green campaigners thought it had at least modest benefits. Just as importantly, they believed that mandating ethanol would build a market that would eventually shift away from corn to hoped-for cellulosic feedstocks that were considered much more beneficial.

Along with fellow EDF staffer Tim Searchinger, I was then quite skeptical of ethanol. The position statement we wrote opposing the ethanol mandate argued that its greenhouse gas reduction benefits were small at best while the expansion of corn growing that it would induce would be harmful to wildlife and water quality.

Needless to say, cautious voices like ours were drowned out by the rising chorus of those who were promoting biofuels for one reason or another, from the understandable self-interest of corn growers and processors to energy security hawks and green advocates of renewable energy.

Although other policy disagreements prevented an energy bill from passing in 2002, the ethanol mandate was one of the most widely supported provisions. It was re-introduced in successive Congresses, passing as part of the 2005 Energy Policy Act and then being greatly expanded by the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA).

In retrospect, our reasons for skepticism were even better founded than we knew at the time, and the ethanol mandate has turned out to be even more of an environmental disaster than we imagined.