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RFS Politics Keep Ping-Ponging and the Environment Keeps Losing

October 4, 2019 Work Area: Land Systems

If a contest was held to identify the Trump Administration’s most haywire, least efficient, most higgledy-piggledy exercise in policymaking, its implementation of the Renewable Fuel Standard would have to be in the running. Surely other policy initiatives have caused more harm in the past three years, environmental and otherwise—but the RFS is no slouch in that department. And while other policies are being implemented in a similarly confused and chaotic fashion, the RFS has proven itself a bottomless well of confusion, litigation, and that special brand of indignation that boils over when people think an entitlement—in this case, a federally-guaranteed market for climate-damaging biofuels—is being partially or temporarily scaled back. The RFS has been a nonstop source of political drama and desultory outcomes since it was expanded in 2007, but things have gotten even more chaotic as the Administration whipsaws between trying to placate Big Agriculture (staunch supporters of the RFS) and mollify Big Oil (staunch opponents).

The latest episode in the RFS soap opera came out today. The White House, under pressure to help American farmers caught in the crosshairs of the US-China trade war and angry about EPA’s recent decision to exempt 31 small oil refiners from having to comply with the RFS, announced it “will seek comment on actions to ensure that more than 15 billion gallons of conventional ethanol be blended into the nation’s fuel supply beginning in 2020.” The RFS, as currently administered by the Trump Administration, implicitly requires refiners to blend 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol into the gasoline bought by American drivers each year.

The ethanol industry wants to increase that mandate and the Administration is acquiescent despite the water pollution, soil degradation, habitat loss, and climate change-accelerating emissions tied to corn ethanol production. Or, more likely, the Administration is acquiescent because of the environmental hazards involved: it explicitly aligned today’s policy with previous blunders like “signing a record number of Congressional Review Act (CRA) legislation, repealing the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, reforming the Section 401 process under the Clean Water Act, proposing a new methane rule, and removing the U.S. from the job-killing Paris Climate Accord.”

Whether the proposed new policy takes hold remains to be seen. The Trump Administration’s approach to biofuel policy increasingly resembles a rickety, bootlegged house of cards. In June 2019, EPA issued a final rule that would allow E15 (gasoline that contains 15% ethanol) to be sold during the summer, despite provisions in the Clean Air Act that plainly prohibit the sale of such fuel between June and mid-September. The oil industry, which doesn’t want to surrender market share to ethanol, challenged the E15 rule in court and will probably win. (As it should. The industry’s statute-backed arguments against the rule are much stronger than anything EPA has offered in defense.)

The policy announced today appears similarly deficient. At a minimum, by doubling down on climate-unfriendly conventional biofuels like corn ethanol and soybean biodiesel, the policy would frustrate two of Congress’s clearly-stated rationales for expanding the RFS—to promote the development of modern biofuels made from cellulosic material and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector.

Oddly, EPA’s announcement points to the small refinery exemptions (SREs) that the Agency granted to 31 facilities earlier this year as a basis for pushing the 2020 RFS corn mandate above the current (and environmentally unsustainable) level of 15 billion gallons. That contravenes EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler’s testimony to Congress two weeks ago that the SREs aren’t negatively affecting corn ethanol demand.

“Ethanol demand has not been impacted by the small refinery program,” Wheeler told the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology. “In fact, we’ve seen an uptick in ethanol over the last two years. So, far this year, the industry has produced more ethanol than they did at this point last year, and we do not see any demand destruction from the small refinery program on ethanol production.”

More confusion, more policy whiplash, more incidental damage to air quality, water quality, and climate. The RFS needs an overhaul, yesterday. Likewise, the transition to zero-carbon fuels and electricity in the transportation sector can’t happen soon enough. Reducing our use of carbon-containing fuels (both fossil and conventional biofuels) will do more than deliver enormous social and environmental benefits: it will transform the RFS pie-splitting (and pie-throwing) contest from a nationally broadcast three-ring circus into an irrelevant sideshow.

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