Anyone with an interest in energy and environmental issues should be concerned by a recent proposal by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And confused.
That’s because the EPA is proposing new rules that would effectively unwind one of the most successful federal environmental policies in the last 40 years. On May 28, the EPA announced it wanted to rewrite the rules to downsize the nation’s commitment to homegrown, renewable energy sources.
The rules, called the Renewable Fuel Standard, require the nation’s fuel supply to be blended with ethanol, a renewable fuel derived from living things like corn, soybeans and switch grass. Since it was passed in 2005, the RFS has achieved exactly what it was intended to do: provide for cleaner air and water and reduce dependence on foreign oil.
In fact, the 14.3 billion gallons of ethanol produced in 2014 reduced greenhouse gas emissions to the equivalent of removing 8.4 million cars from the road, according to the Renewable Fuels Association. Since the RFS was expanded in 2007, oil imports from OPEC are down 22 percent, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Research, development and innovation played an important role too. More than 50 new biofuel technologies amounting to $5.6 billion in revenue and more than 5,000 jobs were created in the last decade thanks to work performed at the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center. This progress could only have been achieved through the commitment of private companies willing to take risks and make investments to develop and deploy technologies that balance environmental responsibility and economic growth through the use of homegrown energy sources.
Years of research and development increased the efficiency of ethanol’s energy balance. Today, one unit of energy invested in making ethanol yields up to 2.3 units of energy available for the consumer.
As the inherent value of ethanol increased, so did jobs and growth. Corn-to-ethanol production has been an economic boon for Illinois and Missouri. The University of Missouri Extension calculated in 2011 that Missouri’s corn production industry generates approximately $4.3 billion in economic output and sustains 65,960 jobs. In Illinois, the renewable fuel sector, including conventional ethanol, cellulosic ethanol, biodiesel, and advanced biofuels and their suppliers generate $17.5 billion of total economic output annually and supports 73,156 jobs, according to the economic research firm of John Dunham & Associates.
Beyond economic and environmental impact, one has to wonder about the wisdom of proposed rules from a federal agency that moves to regulate greenhouse gases for airlines with one action, but moves to increase greenhouse gas emissions for cars with another. Worse still is that, with the stakes so high, the EPA giving it only 60 days to collect public comment about rule change that has far-reaching consequence.
On a fundamental level, this issue is about what goes into a motorist’s gas tank. But, in the bigger picture, this issue really is about whether American innovation can ensure the American way of life without degrading the environment or sending another solider overseas to an unstable region. America never fulfilled its promise through downsizing its goals over its history; we shouldn’t start today.
John Caupert is executive director of the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center based in Edwardsville.